I live in Lincoln, Nebraska, and college football is the (un)official state religion. When the Cornhuskers play home games, Memorial Stadium becomes the state’s third largest city, and that’s been the case for a very long time. (The stadium currently holds an NCAA record of 325 consecutive sellouts.) People eat, sleep, and breathe Husker football here, and when the team wins or loses, it can affect the entire state’s psyche.
This can certainly be a good thing. Even though I’m not a huge football fan myself, I find it nearly impossible not to get caught up in the sense of school spirit and camaraderie. On game day, if you’re a Nebraskan, every other Nebraskan is your friend — especially if you happen to be a Nebraska expatriate. (And even if you’re not a Nebraskan, we’ll still be your friend. Cornhusker fans are known for their hospitality.)
However, that tradition has a dark side. Although the football program has produced many celebrated athletes, and done considerable good for the university and surrounding community, it has generated its own share of controversy. Football players who have perpetrated terrible crimes like rape have been let go with little more than a slap on the wrist — and it’s hard not to think that they received such lax treatment precisely because they were part of the football program, part of the tradition.
All of which makes this New York Times piece about Kathy Redmond (via Jake Meador) such a fascinating, and disturbing, read. Redmond came from a family with deep ties to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — her great-uncle wrote the Nebraska fight song and her grandmother’s Runza sandwiches are a stadium staple — but her college experience soon became a nightmare when she was raped by Christian Peter, who would become one of UNL’s most celebrated, and controversial, players.
After university officials failed to discipline Peter, Redmond filed a lawsuit against Nebraska and would go on to form the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, an organization whose purpose is to “educate the public on a variety of issues regarding athletes and violent behavior while also providing support to the victims”. All of which isn’t too surprising: We should hope that someone who experiences what Redmond did pushes for justice. However, what is surprising is the twist that Redmond’s life would take several years later, when she married Derek Brown — a former Cornhusker running back… and teammate of Christian Peter.
Ultimately, Redmond’s story is one of both justice and forgiveness. What I find particularly remarkable is that Redmond no longer bears any grudge or resentment towards UNL, or even Peter. (The article points out that both Redmond and Brown are religious, and see it as God’s will to forgive UNL and Peter.) What’s more, her activism is far from an attempt to denounce all athletes as predators. Redmond doesn’t downplay the negative behavior of athletes, but acknowledges that the issues are often far deeper and more systemic. As her husband notes toward the end of the piece:
We wonder why athletes think they’re above the law, why they think they can get away with more than the average person… But so many athletes are not shown or taught. They don’t have the right parental upbringing, so the cycle continues. We need to be more proactive than we are. We need to ask, where is the empowerment coming from?
A college football tradition certainly has many wonderful aspects, not the least of which is creating a sense of community. But when defending that tradition becomes more important than justice for individuals — when it creates a culture where those who are inside the culture are enabled to feel as if they’re above the law — then a line has been crossed. The tradition’s empowerment is being used for less than admirable ends. Traditions are good things, but they are not ultimate things, and in our pursuit to praise them, we must be careful lest we turn a blind eye to the wickedness that is perpetrated in their shadows.
Memorial Stadium photo via Bobak Ha’Eri.