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.