Opening arguments in the trial of an American football coach accused of sexually abusing ten boys are being heard in the north eastern US state of Pennsylvania.

Jerry Sandusky spent years helping to train one of the most successful college teams in US history - the Nittany Lions - but lately their sporting achievements have been somewhat overshadowed.

Sandusky, an assistant coach who trained the giant defensive players, denies all the charges against him.

He's alleged to have abused the youngsters on-and-off university grounds - some of the alleged victims were associated with a charity he ran in his spare time.

The lurid details of the case were made worse when it turned out the allegations first surfaced ten years ago and little was done about it.

'Joepa' fired

Penn State's legendary chief coach, Joe Paterno - who won more games than any other and helped more than two hundred players turn professional - was tipped-off at the time and told university officials but not the police.

Paterno was later fired for failure of leadership - the message the world received was clear - at Penn State football had been placed above child safety.

Within weeks "Joepa," as he was affectionately known, was dead from complications of lung cancer, some said he died of a broken heart.

College Sports madness

College football is the second biggest US sport in dollar terms.

Remember though, the coaching staff are mostly professional but the players - the stars - are still just students, many given scholarships by the universities because of their foot balling prowess.

Many people question whether the players are really students at all in the traditional sense of the word.

They get a free college degree but often the scholarships are offered for just one year at a time and if a player is hurt or falls out with the coach his university career can be abruptly ended.

It's also made abundantly clear to them that they're athletes first and students second. Often a university will determine which degree they follow.

The Nation magazine's sports writer Dave Zirin is not a fan of using students in this way but says the popularity of college football is rooted in small towns dotted all across the US.

"The college football team at the university is the social, the cultural and the economic hub of an entire region."

Sense of community

In some areas where manufacturing industry has all but died out, the university may be the only major employer, so success for the football team goes far beyond just the game itself.

And that strong sense of community has many wondering about the outcome of Sandusky's trial. The jurors all live around Penn State campus - many have strong ties with the university.

Will they be sympathetic towards Sandusky? Or blame him for dragging Penn State's once good name through the mud?

He faces five hundred years in prison if convicted on all counts.