Despite messes, sports haven’t failed us

My girlfriends never really have understood my love affair with sports. And, now, thanks to Jerry Sandusky and his enablers at Penn State, my girlfriends might never understand.

"I know sports is your job," one of my friends said the other day when we talked about Sandusky. "I guess I just do not see the good anymore."

Ouch. That hurt. It hurt because I’m also struggling to see the good in sports. It hurt because my mom and dad injected me with a love of sports from as early as I can remember.

My mom was not in The Junior League, never played bridge as far as I know and spent her valuable free time ferrying my sister and me to various sporting events and activities. My mom’s only hobby that I remember was the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL. She loved them, so much so that my dad bought her season tickets. And every home Sunday after, she would put dinner in the crockpot, don her very chic red plaid pants and go to a game.

She is no longer around to say what made her fall so deeply in love with the Cardinals. My only hint into any deeply held beliefs about sports she might have had are memories of her reaction when, during my sophomore year in high school, I talked about quitting the cross country team.

"The whole point of sports is you don’t quit," she said.

That was the end of the discussion. And since then, I remember being a firm believer in the value of sports — until the past 10 days, until my girlfriends, 30-something moms like my mom in her Cardinals-loving days, started questioning me about Penn State and what the controversy says about the sports world I love. And Thursday brought developing allegations of sexual abuse by a basketball coach at Syracuse that, while shaky and in their infancy and vehemently denied by Syracuse officials, further cast an ugly pall on sports.

What possible explanation is good enough for women unable to wrap their brains around any of the behaviors alleged at Penn State? How do I explain Sandusky? Paterno? The university administrators? And Mike McQueary, the former graduate assistant who had a chance to physically save the child in the shower and apparently did not?

I loved my man Whitlock’s column on Thursday explaining McQueary, but I have news for Whitlock and any other man trying to rationalize McQueary’s behavior:

If that had been a woman, damn right, she runs into the shower to save the boy.

I am a mom. And what I know for sure after 2-1/2 years on that job is there is nothing more scary than the thought of your kid hurting — any kid, really. If a woman had happened into that shower scene, I almost guarantee she does not leave without the kid.

If that opinion is sexist, I’m OK being viewed as one. Because that opinion is the absolute truth. Of the 20 people listed in the grand jury report as being alerted to Sandusky’s criminal perversion, one was a woman. Guess who called police?

Women do not worship the God of sports like men do. We take your word on sports. We are told sports builds character, so we grudgingly drop off our kids at football practice or swim practice for lessons on leadership, competition and not quitting, and believe they are safe. But we are skeptical, even those of us who participated in sports in high school or college. We wonder what sports really is teaching our kids.

And those questions are more prevalent now in the wake of the Penn State scandal.

We recognize sports is great — except for predator coaches, administrations that value winning above what is right, the concussions, recruiting lies, one-and-done seasons in college basketball, the absolute de-emphasizing of “scholar” in “scholarship athletes,” the frighteningly low amount of athletes who actually graduate, steroids, drug scandals and lockouts.

My girlfriends do not care if Penn State plays in a bowl game, if the statue of Joe Paterno stays up, what this does to his legacy or recruiting. Football is not important in their questions. Their disenchantment is rooted in this feeling that sports has lost its soul. Sports has become too big, too much about money, too invested in results, to do the things sports is so often praised for doing. The Sandusky allegations just happen to be the most disgusting example of this righteous facade.

I know how I used to answer when friends asked me why sports matter. I believe sports on its best days inspires in a way few things can. I once watched former Dallas Stars defenseman Darryl Sydor crawl across the ice in the Stanley Cup Finals even though he had ruptured his Achilles tendon. He told me afterward he did not want to let his teammates down. Sports is a reminder that the best team doesn’t always win, dedication matters, there can be honor in losing.

What I witnessed in Game 6 of the World Series — a Cardinals comeback after being down to their last strike, twice — is why I am a fan, why I never leave early and why there is always hope. If you do not quit on the game, whatever game you are playing, you always have a chance. There is no book that can teach that. There is no substitute for a day at the ballpark with your dad. There is real value in fathers and mothers spending their Saturdays playing catch and leading drills with their kids.

These are the things I wish I had told my friend the other day. This is my defense of sports, what I believe is the value in it.

Sports is not the problem. It is what we have let fester inside and around the games. The rot is not the games themselves but rather the sports industrial complex. We have turned universities into factories, coaches into deities and young men into cheap labor. And then we wonder why sports embodies so few of the things it is supposed to be teaching about competition and not quitting.

My mom was right, of course — staying on the team was the right call. I was not very good and practices were brutal, but what I learned from running cross country and track, playing basketball and swimming has stayed with me my whole life. On the days I go for a run, I hear my former coach, Barry Terrass, shouting, "You will fight the battle of wanting to quit your whole life in everything you do. You might as well start learning how to win that battle now."

If my mom were still here, I think she’d still believe there are a million more coaches like Barry Terrass than Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary.