Sports Has A Penn State Problem

How much of your soul would you be willing to sell for a championship?
09/07/2016 03:57 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2016
Jeff Swensen via Getty Images

Penn State is planning to do something rather heinous in a couple weeks. On Sept. 17, prior to their game against Temple, the university will publicly honor the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno’s first game as a PSU head coach. This is, of course, a rather audacious thing to do, considering that Paterno’s longest-tenured assistant coach during his time at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with more than 50 counts of child molestation in 2011, a scandal so disastrous for the university that it was forced to fire Paterno five years ago.

The Sandusky scandal wasn’t just a stain on Paterno’s legacy; it shredded it. Paterno knew much of what Sandusky was doing for decades; many of his assistants knew too. Even the higher-ups in the school kept quiet about it. For thirty years, Joe Paterno allowed Penn State to be used as a farm system for Jerry Sandusky’s pedophilic sexual desires. Paterno tolerated the rape, abuse and brutalization of young boys that was happening within walking distance of the university’s football field, and sometimes in the very locker room that Paterno’s players would dress for every Saturday. Joe Paterno, in his selfish, cruel negligence, destroyed lives and overlooked the tortured souls and bodies of elementary schoolers... just to win some football games. 

 

Five years later, Penn State is on the verge of publicly praising perhaps the worst enabler in the history of college athletics.

But the cruelest, sickest part of Paterno’s legacy is that in winning those pitiful, insignificant little football games, he became a god-like figure in Happy Valley ― so much so that when he was fired in 2011, the campus rioted, and his players vowed that if they won their next game after his ousting, they would walk to his home en masse and deliver him the game ball. Five years later, little has changed. Central Pennsylvania, contrary to the rest of the nation, largely clings to the notion that Paterno was framed, that he was somehow oblivious to Sandusky’s evil deeds, and that the reason he was canned was a combination of A.) the media and the NCAA wanting to smear him and B.) the Board of Trustees being a bunch of cowards who buckled to their demands.

 

Penn State has announced to its faculty, teachers, students and alumni that there is a price on their collective morality.

And so five years later, Penn State is on the verge of publicly praising perhaps the worst enabler in the history of college athletics. They have weighed the blood that was spilled in his tenure, and the cries and tears of those who were negatively affected, against the fact that he won a lot of football games in 46 years. And to the university, the scale still tips to Joe Paterno The Football Coach being more important. Whether they realize it or not, Penn State has announced to its faculty, teachers, students and alumni that there is a price on their collective morality. If you transform their athletic department into an elaborate rape pit that snares countless victims over a 30-year period, Penn State will still honor you on national television, in front of a standing-room crowd of 107,000… if you win a lot of football games.

And who knows ― maybe they’ll even put up an old statue of you too. 

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Over these past five years, much has been written about Penn State, and the callous disregard that it seems to have for the actual victims of the school’s child molestation scandal; many in the region have spent vastly more time moaning about JoePa’s branded image than they have for the John Doe’s who had their innocence broken by JoePa’s subordinate. And make no mistake: Penn State deserves every ounce of scorn and criticism that’s coming to them if they actually follow through with honoring Paterno at their home-opener. And I say that not as an outsider looking to dance on the school’s grave, but as someone who graduated from Penn State not that long ago, and as someone who’s frankly embarrassed that I have to put “Penn State” on my resume.

But here’s the thing: if we’re going to criticize Penn State’s warped priorities ―  and we definitely should ― we should also acknowledge that Penn State is only an outlier to the degree and length to which it became an immoral, football-worshipping cult. Otherwise, Penn State is merely the logical extension of what a lot of fan bases would become if it was allowed to fester for half a century. If we’re truly going to learn from Happy Valley’s mistakes, we should all confront a rather uncomfortable question that deserves to be asked: how much of your soul would you be willing to sell for a championship?

I know that sounds like a loaded question. I know that if I threw out an incredibly specific hypothetical, such as, “Would you be willing to celebrate a title if it turned out the star player of your favorite team was a rapist?”, many of you would recoil at the mere suggestion of it. But that’s a scenario that’s presently playing out all throughout the sports landscape. How many people will root for Ben Roethlisberger and Jameis Winston and Derrick Rose this year, while filing the icky rumors about them in the farthest reaches of their mind, so that they never have to seriously confront them? How many people celebrated the retirements of Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning this year and rationalized that the sexual assault charges against them couldn’t possibly have been true, mainly because they didn’t want anything to complicate their memory of them? How many people rooting for the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series this year will keep on cheering when Aroldis Chapman, a man suspended for choking his girlfriend and slamming her against a wall, comes on to close out the ninth inning? How many Cubs fans care that the last outs of a potentially historic season are almost guaranteed to be in Chapman’s grip? And of the ones who care, how many will nonetheless be celebrating if and when Chapman is sitting on a parade float going down Addison St. while hoisting the World Series trophy in the air?

And how many of you would react exactly the same way if it meant your team got to ride in that float? 

 

Sportsmen, like everyday people, can change, and repent, and serve their time, and become better human beings.

To some degree, the whole concept of watching sports is based on the compartmentalization of athletes from the rest of the world. We tune in to sports as a distraction, as entertainment, as something separate from an often discouraging reality, and it makes sense that our reflexive impulse might be to immediately disregard or discount anything that threatens that enjoyment. There’s also an element of nuance that deserves to be respected, because it’s not always appropriate to view someone in their worst, most disgraceful light. Sportsmen, like everyday people, can change, and repent, and serve their time, and become better human beings. But even saying all that feels like a rhetorical exercise, because more often than not, forgiveness in sports comes off as a built in, autonomic response for fans to instantly accept a fallen athlete and less as something that’s authentic. How many of the people who forgave Michael Vick and Greg Hardy and Donte Stallworth and Adrian Peterson did so only out of necessity, and how many of those same people would have gone on railing against them had they merely been on a different team?

It’s scary to think that Penn State’s wiring isn’t all that different from the way other institutions treat their athletes, but it’s true at both the professional and amateur levels. Whenever a major college football player is accused of committing an awful crime, the burden of proof is always on the victim to show that they’re not a fame-seeking con artist who’s just trying to extort money out of the athlete. The university always moves like a phalanx to protect the athlete’s reputation, while simultaneously suspending or expelling less-talented athletes for transgressions that aren’t one percent as awful as what the star has been accused of. The media plays its part too, ignoring the allegations against the athlete for as long as humanly possible, reporting on the allegations procedurally if at all, and only when they absolutely have to cover it, and then instantly creating a redemption story for the athlete if they’re either exonerated or if the case drops, allowing the athlete to then be featured as the true victim in all this. It isn’t just the local media that does this, either. When a sexual assault claim was filed against Roethlisberger in 2009, ESPN went days without even addressing it, and even though the specifics of what Roethlisberger did are as disturbing today as they were in ‘09, the network virtually never talks about it; if anything, the on-air staff only speaks glowingly about him, with guys like Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden occasionally praising Big Ben for what a great guy he is.

Even now, there’s something of an unofficial media blackout on the Derrick Rose gang-rape case. It wasn’t until ThinkProgress published some excerpts of his ongoing trial that it got the tiniest bit of traction again, but sports media at large is still pretending there’s nothing to see there. ESPN’s talking heads, who’ll shriek at athletes for chewing bubblegum and “disrespecting the game,” are curiously silent about the Knicks’ newest point guard, outside of what he can do on the court. And that’s not likely to change unless even more salacious details are leaked in the coming weeks. Knicks fans will still be excited over their new-look roster and NBA 2K17 will still run ads with Rose in his newfound uniform, a uniform that is guaranteed to be one of the top sellers ― perhaps the top seller ― on NBA.com this season.

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When it was first announced that Penn State was going to honor Paterno, the internet erupted in mockery and condemnation. But within the state of Pennsylvania, the reaction was mixed, if not somewhat optimistic. A PennLive article, which noted that 91% of surveyed PSU alumni “felt that Penn State should publicly recognize Joe Paterno for his service to Penn State,” didn’t question if Paterno should be honored, but wondered whether it was the right time, in a piece titled: “50 years ago, Joe Paterno coached his first game at Penn State: Is it safe to celebrate?” 

The USA Today ran an article in which PSU’s current coach, James Franklin, insisted that it was necessary to “balance the history, the traditions, all the wonderful things that are deep rooted here and have been here forever, (while) also making moves that you need to be progressive and to be moving towards a healthy present and a healthy future.” That article also quoted from a member of the school’s board of trustees, who stated that the university should apologize to Paterno’s wife, resurrect the statue of him and change the school’s stadium to “Paterno Field at Beaver Stadium.”

Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a collection of Penn State alumni who tend to be fiercely supportive of Paterno, was thrilled with the announcement, releasing a statement that read:

We will accept this recognition of Joe on September 17 as only the first of many steps necessary to repair the needless damage caused by the unwarranted condemnation of Joe and the entire Penn State community. … the university must apologize to the entire Penn State community for allowing [Louis Freeh’s report on the scandal] to smear our entire culture with his outrageous statements about our priorities. Penn State must take these steps to begin to repair the damage done.

Similarly, Penn State fan site OnwardState.com published an article titled: “Why Honoring Paterno Still Matters,” with its author actually stringing together this sequence of thoughts, unironically:

Sports don’t matter unless we insist on remembering instead of forgetting. The Penn State Spirit is a collective of these memories from the past, all while pushing us forward to form a better future. … What does it say about us as a community if we choose to forget about people like Joe Paterno? Consider the ancient story of the great medieval King Arthur.

A WeAreCentralPA.com article claimed that the only people they found at Penn State’s home opener who were against the honoring weren’t willing to speak on camera, and noted that though the university hadn’t elaborated on how they planned on honoring him, “many hope his statue will be back in Happy Valley.” TribLive.com, another local outlet, reported that Beaver Stadium “erupted in loud ovation when Paterno’s picture appeared on the scoreboard in the Lions’ promotional video,” and quoted a man who said, “I appreciate that Penn State is brave enough to celebrate this in spite of all the haters.” 

Ron Cook, writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, took a similar tone.

I hope you respect my opinion. … I refuse to believe the allegations against Paterno that came out earlier this year. One alleged victim of Sandusky said he told Paterno in 1976 of being abused but was shooed away, quoting Paterno as saying, ‘I have a football season to worry about.’ Another alleged victim said he spoke to Paterno in 1971 about being abused by Sandusky and was told by Paterno, ‘Stop this [talk] right now.’ Sorry, I don’t believe it. That isn’t the Paterno I knew. That Paterno wasn’t a monster. That Paterno was a good, decent man, although he certainly had flaws the way we all do. I just wish Paterno were alive and able to defend himself.

And upon referencing the Penn State Alumni Association survey that produced that 91% figure, he finished: “Let me guess what the Paterno haters are thinking: That all 91 percent care more about Paterno’s 409 wins than they do about Sandusky’s victims. That thought makes me sick to my stomach.” 

Joe Paterno was a cancer to Penn State.

Yes, it’s the thoughts of the “Paterno haters” that sickens Mr. Cook out of all that. Here’s what sickens me: that the Post-Gazette is paying someone to shed crocodile tears over a carcass that’s accountable for children having their innocence robbed, and that his opinion isn’t an aberration in central Pennsylvania. I don’t respect your opinion, Mr. Cook, because your ability to respect multiple people’s accounts of negligence is limited by how well their accounts align with your projection of someone you had come to believe was a saint-like figure. That’s what’s disturbing about that 91% figure. It doesn’t represent that 91% of Penn State alumni are evil sociopaths who don’t care about children being raped; it represents that, like with Mr. Cook, there’s a limit to how much they care about children being raped, and that that limit is whether or not a particular allegation will prevent Joe Paterno from looking like King Arthur.

Let’s set the record straight, so that we don’t have to keep having this argument every few years: Joe Paterno was a cancer to Penn State, who rotted the school’s priorities and empathy to such a degree that his disciples are, at this moment, contorting themselves to honor his corpse at the expense of the people who were victimized during his tenure ― victims who are being completely ignored in this equation. But that’s nothing new; Paterno’s most loyal backers only ever mention Sandusky’s victims as a pre-emptive defensive mechanism, because they’ve learned that most non-Pennsylvanians find their views on JoePa morally repugnant. “Of course I care about those kids” is just a cudgel Penn State loyalists use in what they see as a crusade for justice, with the outrage in question not being that a bunch of kids got raped, but that an 83-year-old man who was about to die anyway got fired from his sports job.

That, right there, is the nonsense that Joe Paterno left behind. That is the legacy that’s about to be celebrated. 

This is a cautionary tale for the rest of the sports world, to do whatever it can to never, ever be like Penn State. Central Pennsylvania is living in a bubble because they were never allowed to see Paterno as anything other than a saint; they isolated their fandom from reality, worshipping someone so fervently that anything less than an erected statue in his honor would be an insult. And so when that worldview came crashing down in 2011, instead of accepting it, they created an alternative reality as a coping mechanism, one where Paterno is innocent and the whole world is out to get them for some incomprehensible reason. It’s sad and pathetic watching these people who are unable to move on from a dude who’s been dead for half a decade, and what frightens me is that even from where I’m living, at Paterno Resistance HQ, I see strands of Penn State all throughout sports.

I see it whenever an athlete is an alleged is to have done something horrible, and how delicately they’re treated in the media, and how the fans rally to their defense regardless of how grave and credible the claims against them are, and how personalities like Michael Wilbon go on TV and invariably say something to the effect of, “I want to believe them” every single time this happens, which inadvertently casts the notion of an athlete/coach doing something wrong as unnatural. I see it whenever Jameis Winston and Ben Roethlisberger are praised for their intangibles and perseverance on NFL Live, just because Roethlisberger and Winston probably sat down in a production meeting with them not that long ago. I see it whenever an athlete’s transgressions, even horrible ones, are pushed so far to the back burner that they become trivia questions; Mike Tyson is a rapist and Don King is a murderer, but I’m guessing that’s news to a lot of you reading this.

And more than anything, right now, I see it with Derrick Rose, who is getting startlingly little scrutiny despite the recent information that’s come out about him during his trial. Rose has gotten so little press, while representing the No. 1 media market in the country, that it’s impossible for me to see the lack of attention given to his case as anything less than an internal flaw in the way we cover sports. Rose is getting preferential treatment for the same reason Paterno got it (contrary to what people in PA want to believe) and the same reason even Brock Turner got it in his own rape trial: we have elevated sportsmen to such a degree that we as a society don’t just want these guys to be innocent, many of us need them to be innocent, and will subscribe to dream world exonerating them if that’s what it takes. And that’s why as awful as the reaction to Paterno has been in Pennsylvania, I don’t think it’s that far off from how another community would react to their own local legend being cast as a menace. It doesn’t matter where you live: if the most venerated, legendary sportsperson in your city was alleged to be a rapist or a murderer, if today it came out that Steph Curry or Vin Skully or LeBron James or Jim Boeheim had kept people locked in their basement, would the area they reside in react any better, or would they too retreat to the first conspiracy theory available that would explain why it’s all a lie?

To me, the most important lesson to heed from Penn State is that for all the hours and days and years that we may spend watching someone, we need to recognize that we still have absolutely no idea who these people are, and that their performance at work for a few hours at a time is not a genuine indication of who they are at home. We need to understand that there is a human being at the core of these guys who we are totally unfamiliar to, and that if another human being claims that one of them did something to them, we need to step back, turn off fan mode, and take those allegations seriously. This doesn’t mean, for instance, that if you’re a Knicks fan, you should automatically presume that Rose is guilty or that you need to carry torches and pitchforks to Madison Square Garden. It does, however, mean getting woke to the fact that it’s possible there’s something there. It means acknowledging that just because it’s inconvenient for something to be true, that doesn’t mean it isn’t and doesn’t give you the right to pretend it’s an impossibility, and if that means you wind up hesitating a little before you buy that new D-Rose jersey on NBA.com, so be it.

Some things are more important than statues and jerseys.

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