Can Anything Good Possibly Come Out of the Penn State Scandal?

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A panel of sports fans comes to terms with the revelations of the past week—and prepares for more

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin) talk about the alleged sexual abuse by a Penn State football coach—and the university's apparent attempt to cover it up.


Hey, guys,

Sportswriters are generally spared the horrific side of humanity that cops beat reporters or war correspondents see on a regular basis. But this week's scandal at Penn State is almost too grotesque to comprehend. Longtime defensive coach Jerry Sandusky has been accused of sexually assaulting prepubescent boys. A gaggle of superiors, some of whom allegedly knew about Sandusky's misconduct as early as 1998, worked diligently to look the other way. A graduate assistant says he saw Sandusky raping a young boy in the shower, and instead of running in there and stopping it, he goes home and calls his father for guidance (hint: maybe you don't abandon a defenseless child). An athletic director, school administrator and university president fail to report the rape to the police or even launch their own investigation. And Joe Paterno, longtime coach and embodiment of Penn State's football program (and frankly the school itself), fulfills his legal obligations by telling his superiors about it but does nothing else, an unquestionable and inexcusable moral failure.

I'm not sure how much more there is to say about the issue itself that hasn't already been said in the press. But perhaps some good can come of this tragic situation. Big-time college programs are an insular lot, imbued with a culture of loyalty like an old-boys-club at a suburban golf course. They use "recruiting hostesses" to lure high school prospects and often ply them with alcohol and strippers, all with the implicit support of the program. When misconduct occurs, like at Iowa orColorado, or Notre Dame, the common response is for athletic and school officials to do their damndest to cover it up, then make a phony hue and cry if the tawdry events ever come to light. Perhaps the horror and breadth of Penn State's moral turpitude will be a wake-up-call to the public and a cautionary tale for administrators thinking about sweeping misconduct under the rug. Perhaps not. But one can hope.

Thoughts, Hampton? Do you hold out hope that something positive can emerge from this?

–Jake

Nothing positive comes from this. The victims and families won't magically heal because of a new athletic director. The damaged lives won't be fixed because Paterno was fired, and he will never get his back his sterling reputation. Rightfully so. The lifetime's worth of genuinely good things JoPa has done as a coach and human being don't make up for what looks like—at best—a decade of gross negligence. The school itself—a university to which Paterno devoted his life—will suffer immeasurable damage to its reputation, plus the very measurable damage from crippling lawsuits, like those that have cost the Catholic Church some $3 billion.

But asking if any good for college sports can come from all this pain, to me, unjustly lumps whatever happened at Penn State with a constant parade of lesser sports scandals. To equate the awful situation in Happy Valley with the sleaziness of, say, the Miami Hurricanes' latest outrage is making an unfair connection. Yes, players in big time college programs get free shoes, free cars, or straight-up cash. It's ugly, and sometimes illegal. But that ugliness is created by a uniquely exploitative system. There's nothing inherently wrong with a booster giving an 18-year-old a new car for being awesome at football. It's only a crime because the NCAA says it is.

Not so with the situation at Penn State. Those alleged crimes, and the willful turning of so many blind eyes that often seems to enable them, cut to the core of what we hold sacred. Those kinds of crimes also aren't exclusive to football, or college athletics or all sports, any more than they are exclusive to any particular church. Sadly, wherever there are children in our society, there will be those nearby who would prey on them.

Maybe you're right, Jake, and the costs of the Penn State mess will change how other schools do business. Maybe, in the future, a school administrator will think twice before covering up when a sleazy booster buys lap-dances for a recruit. Let's hope. But the comparison still makes me flinch. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it applies far, far beyond the realm of sports.

But you know all that. Of course. I'm just flailing. How about you, Patrick? We're all groping to find some meaning in this awful situation. What's been your reaction?

–Hampton

With all due respect, there is no realm of sports, anymore than there's an actual Narnia. Noted cricket author and West Indian nationalist/Marxist historian C.L.R. James once wrote, "The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena, you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday existence." That tradition is hogwash. Sports have their own television networks, their own cordoned-off special parts of the newspaper. But they are no more removed from the sordid compromises of everyday existence than, say, the Catholic Church. Outside the lines? Inside the lines? The distinction is illusory.

When I see Penn State students holding  desperate, grasping, oblivious impromptu pep rallies on the front lawn of former football coach Joe Paterno —a man who allegedly did almost nothing to stop a sexual predator, a man who allegedly joined others in shirking from his basic duty as sentient mammal to prevent children from being raped—I can't help but wonder if the magical thinking so ingrained in our experience of sports, the notion that sports are a separate, unspoiled realm, isn't somehow at fault in this mess.

Why didn't Paterno and Company do more, and by more, I mean something beyond essentially telling accused molester Jerry Sandusky to please violate young boys somewhere other than the Penn State campus? In the rush to comprehend the incomprehensible, we've been told that they were  protecting their institution, the successful and lucrative Penn State football brand.  I'm not sure I buy that. I can't help but wonder if there's another, more sinister reason: if perhaps Paterno and/or others were simply protecting themselves, covering up an earlier cover-up.

Imagine it's 2002, when a Penn State graduate assistant allegedly saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a 10-year-old in a football facility shower. You're Paterno. You're in a position of—ahem—leadership. The graduate assistant comes to your house, and you find out that Sandusky may be a monster.

Suppose you immediately call the cops. No dithering. No speaking with athletic director Tim Curley the next day. Just dial 911. Ask the police to do their jobs. Suppose Curley dials 911 and does the same. Suppose authorities subsequently investigate, and the worst is proven true.

Is that really going to hurt Penn State's brand? No. It's going to hurt Sandusky's reputation. Deservedly so. Meanwhile, Penn State's brand will be fine, because the brand is just football, and as long as the team wins some football games, football fans will keep filling its coffers. Baylor basketball is alive and well, isn't it?

More to the point: Penn State's brand will be fine because the people in charge didn't do anything wrong.

Instead, Paterno and Curley kept quiet, according to the grand jury testimony. They acted like they had something to hide. Did they? Did they cover for Sandusky in 2002 because they had covered for him before out of some tragically misguided sense of institutional omertà —according to a grand jury report, Sandusky's abuse dates back at least to the mid-1990s—and understood that doing so made them culpable, too? 

It's the Millions of Dollars in Future Civil Suit Settlements Question. 

Of course, I'm just speculating. I may be paranoid. The facts—I hope—will emerge. Perhaps the seeming cover-up was motivated by brand protection. In a way, that would be even worse. Because, by extension, it implicates us. The fans. The people who care about sports not too much, but rather in the wrong way. This is what Paterno said on his lawn, and what his student supporters echoed back: We Are Penn State! We are Penn State? We're enablers. We're the ones who make the brand valuable, overly so, and we're the ones who invest it with specialness and meaning. We make a football team too big to fail; we make a football team secularly sacred, a cherished idea, removed from reality, more deserving of protection than a defenseless child pressed against the wall of a locker room shower stall.

I saw a front-page newspaper headline yesterday. It referred to Paterno as a "legend." Beowulf is a legend. Joe Paterno is a man who spent his adult life directing other men to chase a ball around a neatly-chalked patch of grass while hitting each other's heads, all for our amusement. There is a difference. We would do well to remember it. Sandusky's alleged victims didn't need a legend or a hero or a Godded-up fantasy archetype from the  realm of sports; they needed a regular person from the sordid world of everyday existence to pick up a telephone.

–Patrick

It's telling enough that, since Jake sent out the first beat of this roundtable, the scandal at Penn State has almost completely transformed. If we're all somehow implicated in this story, as Patrick suggested, then we might as well find lawyers now.

Every day this week, the story has deteriorated further. Every time we appear to be firmly in the rumor-and-speculation phase, another bomb drops, and the reporting cycle starts up again. In the past 36 hours alone, we witnessed the backlash of Paterno's dismissal; an overturned bus and general disarray in State College; interim coach Tom Bradley's introduction to the press; President Spanier's resignation; the whispering and then reporting of a kiddie-sex-ring rumor; and finally, the announcement that assistant football coach Mike McQueary—the man who allegedly witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in a locker room shower in 2002—would not coach in Saturday's game because he's received multiple threats, presumably for his life.

Perhaps, for a day or so, speculation on the other details of the scandal will continue to reign. But if there is a cover-up at play here (and, if you'll allow me to speculate, I'd agree that there is), then it will be deeply buried, and it will reveal untold layers of corruption and abuses of power in State College and beyond. It will not be a nice story.

Uncovering it will be a long, drawn-out process. Even for casual fans, a very intentional aura of "tradition" and "prestige" has been structured into this country's major collegiate athletics system for a very, very long time. It's a complicated, delusional conviction that is very closely related to the pristine white uniform of a Nittany Lion linebacker and the doddering old man who once peered down from the coach's box. This conviction wants us to believe that Paterno's dismissal is the end of something "sacred" or "good" in the realm we've created for ourselves.

It's not. As Patrick said, the :realm of sports" doesn't have clear boundaries. We know too much, speculate too freely, and occasionally, moralize too zealously. Every once in a while we realize that we really don't know anything at all.

–Emma

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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