In a new feature at The Barnstormer, every so often a few of the editors and contributors will weigh in on a topic of the day, something that for better or for worse has captured the front pages of the sporting universe. In today’s Editorial, Ian Orti, Mike Spry, and Andrew Forbes give their reactions to the NCAA’s recently levied punishment of the Penn State University football program.
IAN ORTI As an immediate disclaimer I have to say I’m not a big NCAA guy. I don’t follow it and I never went to an American college, so the whole culture of affinity around an institution that demands your money as a student and an alumni is foreign to me. On my last day of high school I threw my uniform in a recycling container and never looked back once. I don’t even remember my last day of university. What I do know is that after I graduated the only time I visited the school was to find a quiet place downtown to relieve myself during a curry emergency.
I’m probably a news guy more than a sports guy, so there was no avoiding the Penn State tragedy. A respected representative of a storied institution molesting boys. A lot of boys. Joe Paterno, the head coach, community leader, avatar of sportsmanship, is accused, among others, of covering up the abuse of children in order to protect the wider football community. When read like that, a harsh criticism is easy to come by. I sure came by mine. I think I’ve referred to him as a “worthless piece of shit” on numerous occasions. I think I just call him first name “That”, last name “Worthless Piece of Shit from Penn State”. But maybe that’s harsh judgement. I don’t know. I wasn’t on the coaching staff of Penn State, I never attended Penn State, though a dear friend did attend and the above mentioned affinity she feels to the school is real. So I’m not about to piss on a culture I’m foreign to when I’m this far back in the cheap seats and the tickets are easy to come by. All I can do is weigh in on the punishment handed down by the NCAA which is an erasure of Paterno’s legacy, a fine to the tune of $60 million, suspension from Bowl games for a long time, and some kind of probation – whatever that means – as if Penn State doesn’t already realize the amount of community service it has to do to get its house in order.
I’ve been through a list of NCAA scandals – most of which involve money. Money to players (a whole other can of worms), some points-shaving, and some misleading testimonies about a murder. This is likely the biggest, which means it would have been easy for the NCAA to drop the hammer on Penn State with relative impunity. From a rhetorical perspective – this was an easy case of “with us or with the terrorists”. But I think the NCAA did the right thing here. Why I believe the punishment was NOT heavy handed is that it did not punish people uninvolved in the tragedy – that is to say – the local and family owned businesses whose income largely derives from the tens of thousands of sports fans who flood their gates on game days and beyond. Don’t get me wrong – the moral punishment the Penn State community is reeling from now is very real – but impoverishing or bankrupting the wider community does nothing to heal victims. It just creates more. From a more karmically inspired point of view – what the punishment does, and coupled with Penn State’s removal of Paterno’s statue, is, rather poetically, erase the history of a man complicit in the erasure of the healthy future of young boys. Paterno’s record as the winningest coach in NCAA football is gone. His statue is gone. On paper, Paterno will dissolve in a sea of NCAA coaches with relatively favourable records. He will have no legacy, or at least, on paper, it will have been erased.
But to go back to the community affinity thing for a second, what happened at Penn State was horrific and will be a major stain on their community. But the Penn State community would not be the first community, or city, or nation, to reinvent themselves in the wake of tragedy. This is, after all, what makes a community a community – its ability to withstand adversity and deal with tragedy, together. There is a long list of communities, some larger than others, with dark, horrid histories. They live with them, and they make it a point to be a better community in the future. If the Penn State community is as tight-knit as I’ve read it to be, then I’m pretty confident that after the mourning, after the denial and after the shame, they will move and endeavour to be a greater community. They will reinvent themselves and this is the reason they’ll have reason to cheer on their football team next season and beyond: they’ll be cheering for themselves – for their community – and their ability as a community to rally for a future where no one is silent about wrongdoings, where no one is afraid to speak up no matter how much money is at stake, and where bad shit doesn’t happen to kids. They’ll be cheering for courage – and there’s plenty of reason to cheer for that.
As for Paterno, the NCAA or Penn State itself can do what they want to erase him, his records, or any corporeal evidence of his legacy, but that is one ghost whose haunting presence no one will be ever able to deny. As for me, I still don’t get this affinity to a school thing, but I’m starting to. Shit, if we leave nothing in college but a sense of community and what it means to rally together for a greater cause, I guess it’s money well spent.
MIKE SPRY Like Orti, I don’t understand American college athletics, nor the fandom that surrounds it. I attended two universities and one college over my degrees, and I’ve never been to a post-secondary sporting event. I don’t own a Concordia hoodie. I don’t bleed Stinger maroon and gold, if those indeed are the school colours. I don’t care if the women’s lacrosse team wins, or loses, or ties, or if there even is a women’s lacrosse team that on occasion wins, or loses, or ties.
My good friend, and Barn contributor, Marty Sartini Garner, is an ardent LSU fan (having attended the school as part of a family tradition) and has tried to explain it to me as we sat in his kitchen, drinking bourbon from LSU glasses, LSU pennants and commemorative dishes judging me from the plate rail, LSU Tiger Dust spicing our cooling gumbo. But I still don’t get it. I understand, however, that there is a cultural divide. That Americans have an association with their university and college communities that Canadians don’t.
But with this rabid fandom and worship of flawed idols, comes tragedy. And that’s what happened in State College, PA, in the unfortunately and ironically nicknamed Happy Valley. At Penn State. A school once proud, who will now be eternally known as the university that traded the rape of boys for a few more wins, for a few more gasps of promise for a iconic coach past his prime and out of his element. They traded horror for mediocrity. There is no forgiveness. No excuse. No possibility of redemption. This is Penn State, now and forever.
I believe that the punishment handed down by the NCAA to Penn State’s football program was if not perfect, than damn near close. It will carry with it a legacy of punishment, act as a deterrent, and allow the kids committed to the school’s football program to play elsewhere immediately. The sentence, and that’s exactly what it is, included fines of $60 million (to be dispersed to non-profits that deal with child abuse), a four year post-season ban, limited scholarships to 20 below the normal limit for four years, and placed the football team on five years’ probation. The NCAA also vacated all Penn State wins from 1998 through 2011, removing former head coach Joe Paterno as the record holder for most wins by an NCAA football coach.
Paterno’s statue was unceremoniously removed from campus on Sunday. Never has an icon of American athletics fallen as Paterno has. Nothing he has accomplished (and he has accomplished what very few men in his position ever have or will) will be remembered as this fall. And that’s a good thing, because JoePa committed an unforgiveable sin of not reporting what Jim Sandusky (the recently convicted perpetrator of the violent and horrific acts of abuse) was doing, the unpardonable sins he was committing with regularity and bravado. In my mind, not only should Paterno have reported the acts, but he should have dragged Sandusky out into the middle of Beaver Stadium and instructed his football squad to beat Sandusky within an inch of his life, soaked his bruised and bloodied body in iodine, and then dragged him to the local police station.
There are unfortunate parallels between American college athletics and Canadian junior hockey, morbid tales of abuse of boys by men. And in thinking about Penn State I can’t help but be reminded of Graham James and David Frost. And in the shiver of these stories I wonder about what we don’t know. How many other incidents of abuse have taken place, are taking place, in the name of sport, by men left in charge of boys? Has sport become the Catholic church? Are we about to see a fury of stories like Penn State? Like Syracuse? Like James? Like Paterno? Like Sandusky? As a society, we need to stop placing sport above reason. We have become animals for vicarism. It has become the norm to feed our children, to feed our morals, to the monster of pastime. The NCAA came down hard on Penn State. The state of Pennsylvania came down hard on Jim Sandusky. But some of the guilty still run free. For it is us, the fans, who excuse sin all too often in the name of false heroes. Let these sentences fall upon us all.
ANDREW FORBES Children were raped and abused. Stop here. Go back and read that again. Those are the horrifyingly stark facts, and no fine, no lack of Bowl game exposure, no loss of scholarships, no probation is going to un-abuse those boys and restore their faith in humanity. That’s the single most important thing to keep in mind. Major college sport is a runaway train full of money that is unquestionably thrilling to watch as it speeds by, but as the train gathers speed year over year it’s increasingly impossible to protect anyone who happens to be too near the track. Those boys were too near the track, and nobody moved them aside. Joe Paterno himself had the opportunity to sweep them out of harm’s way, and he neglected to do so, for reasons he took to his grave.
So the NCAA steps into its wayback machine and undoes years of games played (“vacates” the team’s wins), wiping Paterno from the record books as though the latter part of his tenure in State College simply never happened. One wishes that the NCAA — an organization that represents and attempts to regulate centres of learning, though it can be hard to remember that — could compel its member institutions to collaborate on a real time machine that could be employed to stop Jerry Sandusky’s spree of abuse. That, it seems, would be a decent use of all the money on that train.
But of course the train will roll on the same as it has. Consider all the money involved. Consider the fact that Penn State University will absorb $73 million in fines ($60m to the NCAA and $13m to the Big Ten conference) and continue on just the same. Now consider that there are something like 282 schools in the NCAA.
Look, I don’t have an emotional investment. I’m Canadian. I didn’t attend an American institution of higher learning. I like to watch US college sports for the very reason that the train is breathtaking to watch go barrelling by. The size of it, the pomp and spectacle, the gaudy bunting and gilt banners draped all over it. I cheer for Syracuse, for reasons of choice, chance and happenstance, not family tradition or personal connection. But if the Orange basketball and football programs were eliminated tomorrow, my life would roll on and I’d soon forget about it.
I have no doubt that for the people of State College, Pennsylvania, for the students and athletes of Penn State, the alumni and lifelong fans, this is a much more complicated matter. But from where I sit, the NCAA got this right, mostly. Penn State will still have football, though it’ll be years before the program is relevant again. The fans will rally around the husk of the team, gather at the stadium on crisp Saturdays in October and reaffirm their commitment to the team and, to a lesser degree, the school.
Meanwhile, the NCAA’s gesture — unprecedented and stern — says to the victims and their families, we’ll erase those parts of history we can, and join you in mourning those parts we can’t.