"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..." -- from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"
Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011
The siren call of sports TV is pretty strong right now. The Steelers are playing the Bengals in another nail-biter. (I just sneaked a peek online at the scores.) Even the Cowboys seem to be having a good day, which means the good people of North Texas will be a better mood than usual.
I was going to weigh on the Penn State child rape scandal earlier this week. But with the instantaneous flood of stories and opinions on the case, I felt it’d be like shouting into a hurricane. I’m also not sure what else I could add.
It all unfolds (unravels?) in a place called Happy Valley, a scandal involving arguably the most revered college football coach in the country: the venerable, old Joe Paterno.
There are so many points of moral failing it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps the most alarming moment comes in 2002 in the football locker room at Penn State. According to a grand jury report, Mike McQueary, a Penn State graduate assistant, enters the football locker room and sees Jerry Sandusky allegedly performing anal sex on a boy. McQueary doesn’t intervene. Instead he calls his father and then he tells Paterno what he saw the next morning.
Paterno tells the athletic director and never follows up after that. Given the opportunity to act on information that his longtime defensive coach was seen abusing a child, Paterno fumbles the ball.
It’s a wretched case, one of complete moral failure. There is, of course, a criminal side to the case, which means a long and tortuous legal proceeding. But enough is already known that makes this another example of institutional moral failure in a country where the old institutions — civic, religious and financial — are crumbling all around us.
Given the opportunity to act, they didn’t. McQueary, a muscular young former football player, shied away from stopping the assault. Why? Did he fear the repercussions of blowing the whistle on a powerful man? Why didn’t he immediately run to the aid of the child? Why didn’t he immediately call police? Why did he feel the need to call his dad first? And why didn’t his father tell him to call police?
I suspect that as a young man, just out of school, who hoped to go into football coaching, hoped, in fact, to get a full-time job at Penn State, he froze.
Then there’s Paterno, who has always prided himself on his integrity, on the stellar graduation rate of players on his team. Given information that his longtime defensive coach was seen abusing a child, Paterno fumbled the ball. Passed the buck. Why? Was he so consumed by next week’s game that he didn’t have time to follow-up? Why didn’t he go to the police? Was he afraid of sparking a scandal that might ultimately consume him?
The original sin here is the hesitation to act. Did McQueary not believe his own eyes? Did he immediately question what he was seeing? Did he immediately wonder "What if?" What if he blew the whistle on an important man at one of the most important football programs in the nation? What if they didn’t believe him? What if, in fact, he was punished for speaking up?
It’s a classic moral dilemma. But is it, really? He sees a child being raped! How is it that he even stops to think — that he doesn’t immediately come to the rescue of this child?
The second moral failure lies with Paterno. After meeting with McQueary, Paterno is content to simply report the incident up the chain of command. He tells the athletic director, a former quarterback for one of Paterno’s Penn State teams.
And that’s it. That’s all he does. Did Paterno ever wonder whatever happened on the case? Did he ever think about the boy? Did he ever speak up at all? Was he so busy, so consumed with his football duties, that the rape of a child never even crossed his mind after that?
That happened 9 years ago. When the news finally broke last week, Sandusky was arrested. Soon after, Paterno was fired along with the school’s president.
Then came the third moral failure.
Soon after the news of Paterno’s firing, students rioted, fighting with police and overturning a television news truck. Why were they rioting? Was it out of anger that the university had not acted strongly to stop a child predator? No, the students were rioting because they felt Paterno had not been treated with respect, that he had been treated shabbily after a 46-year tenure as Penn State’s head coach.
Come on kids! Are you serious?
My disgust over my own long hobby of following sports over the last five decades mostly has to do with the amount of time I’ve wasted watching millionaires playing for billionaires.
I feel disgusted by how easily I (and millions of others) can be so easily manipulated to care for teams, where the players switch jerseys as easily as flipping a coin. Where the billionaire team owners bully cities into building lavish palaces for their teams, while basic municipal needs like education and infrastructure receive fewer and fewer resources.
I'm disgusted by the way these franchises, owners and players, treat fans as a necessary evil.
I'm disgusted by the insidious degree to which sports journalism (an oxymoron if ever there was one) has been co-opted by the money and business of sports.
I'm disgusted by this codependence that has kept fans from knowing the seamy underbelly and the moral failing of sports business, at the level of big-time college athletics as well as in the pros.