Yeah, I know I’m late to the party on this Sandusky thing. Or maybe I’m early because sadly this thing is going to drag on for years and haunt all of us after more gruesome details inevitably emerge.
I’m not going to rehash the timeline and details around the allegations of sexual misconduct charged against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and the ensuing cover up by the football staff and community. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you may be better off and recommend you bury that pretty head back in the sand. If you need a refresher, this weeks Sports Illustrated cover story does a pretty bang up job.
The real reason I haven’t written anything is because I wasn’t really sure what to say. Everything around this case and these allegations are so sordid and sad. Innocent until proven guilty blah blah blah. I get it. We can’t string the guy up as yet and condemn him to a life in prison presumably on the other side of the deviancy and brutality that he’s alleged to have perpetrated on at least 8 young victims, some not even ten years old. If you don’t believe in karma, watch this thing play out if the charges ring true.
Yeah, so there’s not much to say in that regard. About the apparent cover up at the University, same crap, different day, different guise. That was never about football nor sports nor the cult of personality of Joe Paterno and all that other stuff written about so eloquently by various commentators the last few weeks since everything surfaced publicly. That was about the money. The Penn State football program generates in excess of $60 million dollars a year. Over the course of Coach Paterno’s coaching career (46 if you count the time before he became head coach), we’re talking in excess of $1 billion in revenue for the University. Yeah, you’ve seen the story before in other billion dollar businesses and industries. Alas, when the house of cards collapsed, it collapsed phenomenally. Beware of residual debris for years.
Alas, it is the sports part of it all that irks me. In the aftermath of everything going wide, my faith in sports came under attack. We were told over and over by commentators that it was our cultural obsession with sports like football at Universities like Penn State, our demigoguery of coaches like Paterno that created an enabling culture for crimes like these to be committed and then covered up.
Au contraire. I beg to differ. Perhaps the business of sports, the billions that flow through it, create a cauldron of duplicity, conceit, and false authority that emboldens abuse. But the religion of sports does quite the opposite.
Sports are great. They give us identity beyond our individual selves. They provide us the opportunity to invest ourselves into something we cannot control or force to our way. They offer us valuable lessons in devotion and faith and discipline and loyalty. We build cathedrals around them. We make pilgrimages to them. We have transcendent moments within them.
I’m well aware of the all too easy analogies between the Penn State sex scandal and the ones that have occurred far too often inside the catholic church over the years – probably centuries. I understand the horrible and tangled strands of deceit between the implicit power of institutions like the church and the drunken abuse that figures of authority within it subject their vulnerable victims to. But there’s a big difference. Religious dogma – or the officials that interpret it – often imposes rigid rules that can suppress basic human instincts. You’ll have a hard time convincing me that there is no correlation between rampant sexual misconduct amongst Catholic Priests whose piety to God is often expressed through endless abstinence and condemnation of the sacrilege sinfulness of sex. In other words, if you suppress it, it’s gonna express itself in other ways.
Sports at their core are the opposite. They are a celebration of our instincts – to compete, to push limits even while abiding by rules, to triumph and achieve glory. To be a fan of a sport is to take on an identity that transcends individual existence, to be something more than just your skin and bones, your limited individual potential.
Which brings me to my last point. My first reaction upon seeing hundreds, maybe thousands, of Penn State students take to the streets last week when their hallowed coach Paterno was unceremoniously sacked for his unwitting or witting part in the whole sick saga was one of disgust. Like millions of others watching the news, I was revolted by the images of students seemingly coming to the defense of an old coach that – if allegations are proven true – enabled a colleague he knew to be sick and a predator to young children to continue abuse for years right there in the locker room rather than showing any empathy for the victims of the abuse whose lives were forever shattered by such abuse. But the more I thought about, the more i realized I was being led astray. Just like the scandal and cover up has never been about football or sports, those scenes of defiance weren’t about the old coach. They were about identity. Call it what you will, but Penn State students for generations have formed their identity around coach Paterno, the football team and everything they together epitomized. To have it shattered in front of their very eyes, with no warning, and with such force and precision, how were they supposed to reach? If I were to tell you you are not who you think you are, that everything you believe to be true and that you have used to formulate your moral compass and sense of self no longer applies and then destroy it in your face, you may react poorly, illogical be it may.
We are who we are because of what we believe in, and the things we invest our sense of self in. Identity is a funny thing that way. But as fragile as it is, it’s also resilient. Because coaches come and go. Sadly some of them bring scandals with them. but eventually they go to, hopefully creating space for healing for their victims. But the games, they continue. And they’re always worth believing in.
Read Religion Of Sports Part 1 of 2 here