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.