11/16/2011 03:55 EST | Updated 01/16/2012 05:12 EST

America's obsession with college football helped obscure Penn State scandal

WASHINGTON - In a country where college football is sacrosanct, the alleged conspiracy of silence in the horrifying sexual abuse scandal rocking Pennsylvania State University is leading to criticism of the culture of a sport that's now a multibillion-dollar industry.

Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive co-ordinator of Penn State's football team, is facing 40 counts of sexual abuse against eight children over 15 years, an indictment that has already prompted the removals of university president Graham Spanier and revered coach Joe Paterno, although neither has been charged with a crime.

Mike McQueary, an assistant coach, is also on indefinite leave amid allegations he walked in on Sandusky raping a young boy in the locker room showers and failed to go to police. In emails McQueary sent to friends and obtained by a Pennsylvania newspaper on Wednesday, however, the star witness in the case against Sandusky insists he did, in fact, put a stop to the assault and told police about it.

Sandusky, for his part, said in a televised interview earlier this week that he's innocent, adding that his penchant for showering with underprivileged young boys and engaging in "horseplay" was simply a matter of poor judgment.

While Sandusky's alleged demons likely had little to do with the college football system, Spanier, Paterno and McQueary are all accused of keeping the events quiet for purely mercenary reasons — to protect the reputation of Penn State and prevent prestige, power and cash from drying up in the face of terrible scandal.

"Spanier did many splendid things for PSU as president," Carol Harter, the former president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, wrote in a recent editorial in the Las Vegas Sun.

"But his Achilles' heel, or tragic flaw, or whatever one calls this sad professional demise, is surely a product of the 'football culture' that has so dominated major university life nationwide and seems to get more out-of-control every day."

She suggested Spanier counted on revenue from the football team to support other university programs, "thereby becoming beholden to coaches — even iconic ones — and their staffs."

To have a winning college football team in the United States means lucrative television packages, mammoth payouts for bowl games, a boost in alumni donations and thousands more high-school graduates chomping at the bit to attend. It also means head coaches can negotiate salaries that often soar into the seven figures.

The University of Texas, in fact, will reportedly net as much as US$15 million annually from ESPN to broadcast all of the school's sporting events on the college's new Longhorn Network. Notre Dame will soon follow suit.

"It all centres on money — they have professionalized college football in a way you won't find anywhere else in the world when it comes to amateur sports," Geoff Baker, a Canadian-born sports reporter at the Seattle Times, said Wednesday in an interview.

Canadians might fixate on hockey, he said, but America's obsession with college football goes far beyond anything that exists in Canada.

"Canadians are obsessed with professional hockey, and with the juniors during the World Championships," Baker said.

"But that's the kind of fervour you see here every single weekend in the United States, even at the high school level. In Canada, you see it once a year and even then, I doubt you'd be able to pack a stadium with tens of thousands of people once a week, even when the team is winless. Football is deeply ingrained in the culture here."

Buzz Bissinger, author of the non-fiction "Friday Night Lights," has been scathing about the so-called football culture in recent days. The TV adaptation of his book about a Texas high school football team frequently detailed the tireless efforts of Coach Eric Taylor to ward off predatory college recruiters as they targeted his players with promises of fame and riches.

In an interview on CNN on Wednesday, Bissinger compared college football teams to mafia members who fervently honour the "code of omerta" — a pledge to keep quiet when the going gets tough.

"Penn State football is God, you don't touch God, you don't touch football, you don't touch Zeus, which is Joe Paterno. Everybody — everybody — abdicated their moral and public responsibility," he said.

"You name me one football scandal ... where someone from the inside, a coach, actually turned in his program. It will never happen. They protect their own at all costs."

But Baker also believes the Penn State conspiracy of silence was given a helping hand by the U.S. sports media, which provides blanket coverage of college football and assigns "god-like" status to winning coaches. Dictatorial coaches often shut out the media entirely and no one complains, he added.

"You have to look at what gave them their power in the first place, and it's the media that allows them to keep this status without seriously questioning them," he said.

"Very little investigative reporting of college sports teams goes on down here, and if it does, it's investigative reporters from other areas of the newsroom, not sports reporters, because then they'd lose their precious access to the team."

Penn State's scandal is by far the most extreme example, but there have been other cases of colleges covering up misdeeds by everyone from players to boosters and recruiters.

The University of Miami was recently on the hot seat for a "lack of institutional control" for failing to rein in team booster Nevin Shapiro. Currently in jail for orchestrating a US$930 million Ponzi scheme, Shapiro also allegedly provided cash, goods and prostitutes to the college's football players and paid for at least one abortion for one of the team members.

The National Collegiate Athletics Association has said that if the claims are true, it will ban the University of Miami Hurricanes from competing for a year.

At San Diego State University, former coach Chuck Long was replaced after it emerged he tried to conceal a 2008 incident that resulted in a lineman pleading guilty to assaulting a teammate.

Penn State, for its part, is creating a special committee to investigate how the culture of silence contributed to the events in the wake of allegations that Sandusky used the school's reputation and football program to lure young boys.

The U.S. Department of Education has also launched an investigation into whether Penn State broke the law by failing to report sexual assaults on campus. A long road of civil lawsuits and additional indictments also looms ahead.

Will that change anything?

"I doubt it," Baker said.