Thoughts on Penn State, the sanctions and what is and is not defensible

I suppose there was no way I was ever going to approach the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky case with any dispassion.

In November 2011, when Jerry Sandusky was indicted, I was the father of a one-year-old. Four months later I was a new father again. The thought that anyone could do anything to harm a child- much less than others would stand idly by while they did- was so vile and indefensible to me that it filled me with anger like few other news stories ever have. Sure, I’d be angry about other sex abuse scandals, the Catholic Church ones included- but because I wasn’t a father yet, it didn’t quite hit me. Of all the awful things in the news the last five years, not much of it has kept me up at night- but Sandy Hook did, and so did Sandusky.

I was very angry at Penn State when the story came out, and I got really angry again when Penn Staters rioted and overturned news vans- not because they heard about a decade-long sexual abuse coverup, but because their beloved football coach was fired, one game before he would have stepped down anyway. This went way beyond typical college-student idiocy- it was an absolute moral failure.

I continued to follow the case over the last three years, through the Freeh Report, Sandusky’s trial, the various lawsuits and investigations, the scandalous, totally indefensible decisions by the Today Show to broadcast interviews with both Sandusky and his rotten wife, and the various times that reporters- women especially- were harassed on social media for expressing the “wrong” opinion about the case.

Let’s just say this is a sensitive subject, in few places as much as Philadelphia, where I live, with its high concentration of PSU alums. When I’ve written about the subject- especially when I reviewed the utterly repugnant “Framing Paterno” documentary two years ago- I got more hate mail and comments than on any topic I’ve ever written about in my career, even stuff related to race, presidential politics, Israel/Palestine, parenting, feminism, Donovan McNabb and various other third rails.

At risk of sounding like I’m doing a #notallpennstaters… I have a lot of friends and family members who are Penn State alumni and/or football fans, people whom I care about deeply. I’ve had loud, passionate arguments about this topic with most of them. And I’ve said angry things, some of which I didn’t mean, about the school, its fans and its team.

But despite that, I truly believe in my heart that the vast majority of people associated with Penn State University are good people, whose love of their school and football team is genuine and heartfelt, and who grasp the gravity of what happened, even if they reach different conclusions than mine about the NCAA, Paterno’s culpability, the “culture of football” and other such issues. And besides, if sports fandom has never moved you to positions beyond rationality, then you’ve probably never been a sports fan.

My favorite athlete growing up was Kirby Puckett- an unimpeachable hero for years until suddenly he wasn’t, until suddenly he was dead. So in a way I could sort of relate to the reactions of Paterno loyalists to that whirlwind of events in 2011-’12.  But the lesson I took from the sad fall of Kirby was a clear one: To worship and revere sports figures at your own risk- because they’re human, and they may very well let you down. My sons, young as they are, are sports fanatics already, and I’m not especially looking forward to imparting that lesson.

I can understand the impulse of the NCAA lifting the sanctions early- they didn’t want to continue to punish the school when everyone who committed the violations was long gone. But that’s how it always works with NCAA sanctions, which most of the time are handed down years after the fact, when there’s a new coach, new athletic director and all new players. The sclerotic bureaucracy of the NCAA- not to mention, let’s face it, its full-on corruption- is a whole other subject for another time.

But I opposed lifting the sanctions for one reason: What Penn State did was the worst thing any college sports program- or possibly any university- has ever done. This once-in-a-lifetime penalty was totally earned and deserved to remain in place. Reducing it sets a terrible precedent, and even even worse message.

What the NCAA did Monday was look Sandusky’s victims in the eye and tell them- “sorry, football is more important than you.” Which, come to think of it, was the attitude to which they were subjected all the way up until November of 2011. One of “we take your abuse seriously- as long as it doesn’t affect our favorite football team.” A few months earlier, Roger Goodell had made a strikingly similar decision.

This led to remarkably strange juxtaposition Monday afternoon: The NFL, in suspending Ray Rice, was sending a scandalously belated yet clear message that abuse will not be tolerated, and that’s a principle that’s more important than football. About 30 minutes later, the league’s college counterpart sent another message: That abuse that we said won’t be tolerated? We’ll tolerate it enough that you can go to a bowl game this year.

I’ve often heard the “why punish those kids?” argument, “those kids” referring to players on the Penn State football team who wouldn’t get to go to a bowl game. Yea, I’m much more concerned about a different subset of “those kids.”

Meanwhile, I have nothing but contempt for the students who had a full-on celebration on campus Monday night, chanting Joe Paterno’s name and demanded the return of his statue. They also completely misunderstood the NCAA’s decision- it was a reward for Penn State’s current leadership for compliance with the original penalty and “good behavior,” not an exoneration of Paterno or any type of feint towards restoring the coach’s wins or statue. Neither should ever happen, and neither ever will.

Those fans sent a clear message of their own:  Everything is back to normal, let’s play football, and we’re going to proceed with a clear conscience as though the Jerry Sandusky scandal never happened. It was fans of a team enthusiastically celebrating the slight reduction of their school’s penalty for a child sex abuse coverup. And that was disgusting- it was like Ferguson, only for undergraduate shitheads.

But if only Monday night’s revelers were the worst actors in this whole drama.

I reserve that particular dishonor for the community of Penn State truthers, who are truly among the ultimate scum of the Earth. These repugnant trolls have moved far beyond advocating for Paterno or Penn State football- they are actually flacking on behalf of Jerry Sandusky himself, claiming his innocence and proclaiming every last one of his child sex abuse victims opportunistic liars.

This position seems to be based entirely on several of the victims having vouched for Sandusky, or continuing to have relationships with him, at first before ultimately testifying against him and/or suing.  But as any abuse-related professional could tell you, this sort of thing happens in abusive situations all the damn time, that of Ray Rice included, and in no way whatsoever exonerates the abuser. The Sandusky jury saw it the same way, convicting him on 45 separate counts.

I realize that this is a relatively small group of people, who don’t represent anywhere close to the majority of Penn Staters or necessarily even Paterno defenders. But they’re loud,  some of them are media savvy and like it or not they’re part of the conversation.

Make no mistake about it, though: These people are evil, they are human garbage, and they are open apologists for child rape. They need to stop. And media outlets who have given them a microphone need to stop doing so, today.

I can understand the actions of Paterno’s sons, striving to clear the name of their father, and If I were in their shoes I may very well be doing the same thing. Someone like Franco Harris has said a lot of regrettable things about this case in the last two years, but I can understand that he’s acting out of loyalty to his coach, a man who made a strong difference in his life. Lifelong fans of the team, who have taken it as a bedrock principle their entire lives that Joe Paterno is the world’s leading paragon of moral virtue? I don’t quite sympathize, but I understand.

But the NCAA, reducing a deserved penalty for an unspeakably evil act? A bunch of drunken 18-year-olds who were freshmen in high school when it all went down in 2011, treating the lifting a child rape coverup-related ban like it was Mardi Gras? A group of sociopathic freaks, who spend each day slandering sex abuse victims, threatening female journalists on Twitter and seeking the rehabilitation of a monster like Sandusky? My sympathy for those people is less than nonexistent.

So how long will this go on? Will we still be arguing about the Penn State sanctions decades from now? Another legendary coach, one who had a fatal weakness for beating up college students, Bob Knight, was fired from Indiana 15 years ago- and they’re still arguing about it there now.

Two more years of sanctions or not, I’ve got a feeling these arguments are far from over. For all I know Penn State ends up a perennial national power under James Franklin, one that behaves impeccably as a program from this day forward. But I’m never going to forget about what happened in the Sandusky case anytime soon.

Why Ayaan Hirsi Ali is wrong, and her supporters are even more wrong 

When I first wrote last week about the controversy involving my alma mater, Brandeis University, awarding and then pulling an honorary degree from the controversial human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, my feelings on the matter were somewhat mixed. But having seen the reaction from Hirsi Ali herself, and from some of her laughably overzealous supporters, they’re not so mixed anymore.

As you know if you’ve been following this, Brandeis announced that it was pulling the degree on April 8, after first announcing it the month before. However, Hirsi Ali had been announced as an honorary degree recipient, and NOT as the commencement speaker. School reform activist and Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada was announced as the speaker March 31. This distinction is important, for a couple of reasons.

Hirsi Ali issued a statement April 9 responding to Brandeis pulling the degree. She wrote that Brandeis had withdrawn the honor “having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement.” She went on to state that “The ‘spirit of free expression’ referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here,” and that “my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced.”

She went on, a few days later, to publish an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, under the headline “Here’s What I Would Have Said at Brandeis.” The introduction referred to the speech as “an abridged version of the remarks she planned to deliver.”

The problem here, as I don’t believe anyone who has written about this in any major publication has pointed out? Ayaan Hirsi Ali was never scheduled to speak at Brandeis’ commencement. At no point did the university announce that she would address the commencement ceremony- she was to be one of five honorary degree recipients, and Canada was announced as the speaker. And at Brandeis, it is not customary for honorary degree recipients, with the exception of the designated commencement speaker (and a chosen student speaker), to address the graduates.

Therefore, she was not silenced, or censored, or prevented from speaking. The pulling of the degree had nothing to do with preventing her from giving a commencement speech, because she was never scheduled to give such a speech in the first place. But “they silenced me” is a much more sympathetic-sounding lament, I suppose, than “they didn’t give me this meaningless degree.”

In fact, Hirsi Ali’s words and views have reached a substantially larger audience as a result of Brandeis pulling the degree as they would have had they granted it as scheduled. That may very well be the best break she’s ever gotten in her career.

Either she misunderstood the invitation, or perhaps she was scheduled to address a departmental or sub-commencement (as honorary degree recipient Leon Wieseltier did last year.) Or perhaps this was a deliberate attempt by Hirsi Ali and her supporters to imply something that is simply false. Which really goes to her credibility as a whole (and that, for that matter, of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.)

Of course, if Hirsi Ali has been dishonest, her supporters have been downright insane. A staff editorial in the online Jewish magazine Tablet deemed Brandeis’ move a “Soviet-style tactic,” because if nothing else the USSR was notorious for flip-flopping on giving out honorary college degrees. The demented, Muslim-hating blogger Pamela Geller, writing for Breitbart.com, likened Brandeis’ move to “slavery.” And most indefensibly of all, Zev Chafets of Foxnews.com likened the pulling of the degree to an “honor killing.” An honor killing, in case you’re not aware, is an actual murder. 

Whether or not Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserves an honorary degree is something on which reasonable people can disagree. But comparing it to some of history’s greatest atrocities strikes me as an over-reaction by a factor of about a million.

I reiterate a few things I said the first time I wrote about this: Honorary degrees are a meaningless sham, which don’t matter in the slightest or have any effect on anything. Brandeis screwed up royally in that they didn’t appear to do any level of due diligence on this, nor have any idea that they were walking into a huge controversy. And while I certainly find many aspects of Hirsi Ali’s biography admirable, try taking a few of her statements, changing “Muslim” to “Jew,” and see how they sound. It probably wouldn’t result in many honorary degrees, especially not from Brandeis.

The Brandeis/Hirsi Ali Controversy: Ten Thoughts From an Alum

Brandeis, my alma mater, made news this week when it first awarded, and then rescinded, an honorary degree for the Somali-born author and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Here are a few scattered thoughts on this:

1. Honorary degrees are a sham. They’re completely meaningless. They’re a way for universities to aggrandize themselves and give attention and unearned accolades to a bunch of celebrities that would better be granted to the accomplishment of the graduates themselves. It always particularly upset me that an honorary degree is called “Brandeis University’s highest honor.” Why isn’t Brandeis’ highest honor an actual degree from Brandeis, accomplished through four years of study, rather than a fake certificate, presented by a committee?

2.  The school should have done their homework, and known this would cause a problem which, once again, is taking the focus away from the people who are actually graduating. They put themselves in a position that they’re going to piss off a whole lot of people whether they give the degree, or don’t give it. Just a bungling all around.

3.  Then again, I don’t see how giving or not giving Hirsi Ali the degree is a horrible outrage because, once again, honorary degrees mean nothing.

4. Commencement speaker/honorary degree controversies were a yearly tradition when I was at Brandeis. Usually the problem was that the speaker the school chose wasn’t famous enough. “We pay $30,000 a year!,” I heard students say many times. “Why can’t we have a speaker as cool as the one my friends at Harvard got?” And yes, I know Brandeis now costs a whole lot more than $30,000; that talking point hasn’t been adjusted for inflation.

5.  I read Hirsi Ali’s book years ago, and my opinion of her is mixed. She went through a horrible ordeal in her youth- and her advocacy for women, and against female genital mutilation is greatly admirable.

6. But at the same time, she’s said a whole lot of awful things, including that the West is (or should be) at war with Islam. Take some of the things she’s said, change “Muslim” to “Jew,” and see how that sounds. It probably wouldn’t lead to very many honorary degrees, especially not from Brandeis. She’s also spent a great deal of time telling some of worst elements in American political life everything they want to hear, including this nonsense about “creeping sharia.” Loathsome, warmongering vermin like Bill Kristol, Pamela Geller and John Bolton are huge, huge fans.

7.  In her statement after the decision, Hirsi Ali said that Brandeis was “planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement” and that Brandeis and her critics “simply wanted me to be silenced.” Wrong and wrong. She was never scheduled to be the commencement speaker, and pulling an honorary degree from someone- especially when coupled with an invitation to speak at a later date- is in no way “silencing” them. Once again- criticism and rebuking are not censorship, and they’re not silencing either.

8. The actual commencement speaker is Geoffrey Canada, the school reform activist and charter school founder. What, no lefty backlash against a guy who’s done his share of battle against teacher’s unions? 

9. Brandeis has had a lot of incidents lately in which two of its biggest traditions- left-wing politics and Zionism- have clashed, and this is another. I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be a lot more of that in the future, and it saddens me.

10. Why can’t Brandeis ever make the news for anything positive? Just in the last few years we’ve had the post-Madoff scandal near-selloff of the art collection, the al-Quds controversy, Jehuda Reinharz’s donkey debacle, and now this.

Year-End Movies and More

In case you missed it last week, here’s my top ten movies list for the year, which is led by “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

New recent reviews include “American Hustle,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and a roundup of recent video/Netflix viewings.

And switching gears, here’s the year-end blog post from Noah and Jonah.

Tea Party Scams Are the Best

I’m on a lot of Tea Party email lists for some reason- I guess they love to troll journalists. I got this one earlier today:

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Because that doesn’t sound questionable or shady at all!

The Tea Party: It’s the Publishers Clearing House of politics.

UPDATE: I Googled around to see if this thing has been published anywhere else. See if you can guess what the first result was.

Ann Coulter vs. Me

Big career highlight for me tonight: I’ve had my words twisted in a column by the original conservative Internet troll, Ann Coulter!

Writing in her syndicated column in response to various media reports that that whole Knockout Game thing may have been a tad overblown, the fading diva of the right has this to say about my Phillymag piece on the subject- you know,  the one from three weeks ago:

Similarly, in Philadelphia magazine, Stephen Silver said of two recent knockout attacks in Philadelphia that he wasn’t counting either one as “confirmed cases of the Knockout Game” on the grounds that the puncher said he “was not participating in the Game.”

Let’s go back  to the real column:

Philadelphia police sources told the Daily News in an article published Monday that there has been one — that’s right, one — confirmed case of the Knockout Game in the city among recent assaults, a Fox Chase man. (The suspect in the high-profile Broad Street Puncher case, according to a SEPTA spokeswoman quoted by this website last week, was not participating in the “Game.”)

The first part of the quote is attributed, by me, to Philadelphia police sources, speaking to the Daily News. The second part is attributed to a SEPTA spokeswoman. I didn’t count them as cases of the Knockout Game because the police didn’t either.

If Coulter doesn’t think the police are doing a good enough job of making sure everyone is scared of young black men, her argument should be with them, and not with the “liberal media” or the author (me) who quoted them.

I mean, it’s almost as if the woman who accused 9/11 widows of enjoying their husband’s deaths isn’t interested in fealty to the facts .

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Recent Stuff

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah to all! It’s been a crazy fall, but I’m exciting for a long Thanksgiving weekend with family.

Here’s a roundup of some recently-published stuff:

- I returned to Philadelphia Magazine’s website this week with a piece about the so-called “Knockout Game,” which drew the most unhinged comments of anything I’ve ever written that didn’t involve the Penn State scandal. In my entire two years as a columnist on the Phillymag site I never once had the #1 story on the site; my first freelance piece has been that since yesterday.

- I also put together a list, for EntertainmentTell, of the best non-Sandler Hanukkah songs.

- I’ve been getting Oscar screeners for the first time ever, but before I delve into those, some recent movie reviews. You can see all of the latest ones at my Rotten Tomatoes page.

- Do please check out EntertainmentTell itself, as well as the parent TechnologyTell site; we’ve been growing all year and adding writers, and we’ve got much bigger things planned for 2014.

Thanks for your support everyone, and have a happy holiday season!