The sports media have moved on from the scandals at Penn State. There are new shiny athletes to worship (Tebow) or tingly scandals to inhale (was a drug dealer on the Chicago Bears roster?) or even other “scandals” at Penn State (locker room fight knocks out quarterback!). Meanwhile, the trial of Penn State coaching legend Jerry Sandusky continues with a sports radio yawn and a far dimmer spotlight. And yet, in a SportsWorld where the media floss with the line that separates public relations and journalism, the happenings at Penn State require our collective vigilance. It matters not only because of the heinous nature of Sandusky’s crimes. It matters because it’s a story about how Big Football, together with the Cult of Coach, created a company town in Happy Valley as venal as Homestead, Matewan, Ludlow or any of this country’s corners colonized by robber barons a century ago. It matters because these university company towns dot the national landscape, living by their own rules.
The latest news from court, with not a sliver of the earlier publicity, does further damage to Paterno’s reputation and reveals a culture where the possible serial sexual abuse of children was seen not as a crime but an inconvenience. Paterno’s testimony (read into the court transcript because he is undergoing treatment for cancer) had, even in these jaded times, the capacity to shock. The legendary football coach testified about hearing from assistant coach (formerly a Nittany Lion quarterback) Mike McQueary that he had witnessed Sandusky’s sexual assault of a child in the Penn State showers. In Paterno’s own awful words: “He (McQueary) had seen a person, an older person, fondling a young boy. I don’t know what you would call it, but it was of a sexual nature…. I didn’t want to interfere with their weekends, (so) either Saturday or Monday, I talked to my boss, Tim Curley, by phone, saying, ‘Hey we got a problem’ and I explained the problem to him.”
That phrase, “I didn’t want to interfere with their weekends” deserves to harpoon Paterno’s sixty years as a coach and educator. His supporters will call that profoundly unfair. But Paterno’s grand reputation is built on the care and stewardship of the young. His blasé reaction by very definition, warps and should force re-evaluation of all that came before.
The testimony by others is equally evocative, if not more agonizing. There was ex–athletic director Tim Curley, who testified, “I never reported it to University Police. I didn’t think that it was a crime at the time.” (Curley was raised in State College, grew up parking cars on game day, and went on to play quarterback for Paterno.) Then there is McQueary himself, the man who kept what he saw under wraps for years, while advancing up the Penn State coaching ladder. In open court he spoke about what he had witnessed and how he described it to Paterno. “I never used the word sodomy or anal sex out of respect for Joe Paterno. I would not have done it [said it that way]. I sat at the kitchen table and told him that I saw Jerry with a young boy in the shower and it was way over the lines, extremely sexual in nature and thought I needed to tell him about it.”
All of this is after, as McQueary testified, “I thought that Jerry was molesting him, having intercourse with him. I didn’t see insertion or hear protest. Jerry having some type of intercourse with him, that’s what I believe I saw…. I heard rhythmic slapping sounds, two or three slapping sounds, like skin on skin. I looked into the mirror and shockingly and surprisingly saw Jerry in the shower with a young boy, with Jerry behind the boy.”
As stomach-churning as it all is, let’s review what the court proceedings have now revealed: McQueary, an ex–PSU quarterback, saw abuse and didn’t stop it. He went to head coach Paterno but didn’t describe in detail what had occurred out of “respect” for his coach’s delicate sensibilities. If Coach was that Victorian, it didn’t occur to McQueary to, perhaps find a cop he could say the words “rhythmic slapping” to. Then Paterno kept it under wraps because he “didn’t want to interfere” with anyone’s weekend and then Monday when he finally told another former quarterback, Tim Curley, his athletic director “didn’t think there was a crime.”
This isn’t just a story of the amoral leading the oblivious. It reveals an athletic department that existed in its own moral universe. In such a universe, the needs or honor codes of the greater institution, not to mention the broader community, is at best an annoyance. All the pabulum about honor codes are sacrificed on the altar of “revenue-producing” sports. This is the most important sports story in the country because while the details are particular to Penn State, the perverse situation of universities’ getting led by the nose by big money sports is everywhere. We have created a network of company towns where the industry is football. The very places charged with “producing the next generation of leaders” are churning out students who feel not a sense of collective outrage but a sense of collective victimization when “their school” is caught behaving badly. This is the world the NCAA made, and it’s been flowering for decades. As Ambrose Bierce defined it in his Devil’s Dictionary a century ago, “Academe, n.: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught. Academy, n.: A modern school where football is taught.” What makes Penn State matter is that it shows just how low a school is willing to go to preserve this reality. Don’t think for a second that this is just a Penn State problem.