In my latest sports column for Canadian Dimension, I address the Penn State affair and the culture of male violence which afflicts US college sports.
I have an uneasy relationship with US college sports, having spent two years playing soccer for the State University of New York at Buffalo. I revelled in the minor stardom bestowed on college athletes: Sure, soccer players are b-listers compared to the football and basketball teams, but you take what you can get when you’re an otherwise anonymous nineteen year old on a campus of thousands. Recognition, travel, the sheer enjoyment of play; this was the upside.
And then there is the culture of male violence, which has its most egregious manifestation in rituals of hazing and initiation; the product of hyper-masculine groupthink. I spared myself the ‘fun’ and came home that weekend. I wasn’t popular when I got back; everyone likes a “team player”.
The dark side of US college sports has never been exposed quite the way it has with the Penn State affair. The lid is truly off. As you will have heard, former assistant Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with 40 counts of sexual assault of eight children over a period of 15 years. Much of the abuse is alleged to have taken place in the team’s athletics facilities. Apparently there was no shortage of witnesses; quite the crew of cowards including a couple of janitors and a graduate assistant. There was also no shortage of men close to Sandusky who harboured well-founded suspicions; suspicions that would have prompted further investigation by a responsible adult. But it seems there is a shortage of responsible adults at Penn State.
It’s peculiar how the story quickly changed focus from perpetrator and victims to the fate of an old football ‘legend’ when the university decided to fire the team’s 85 year old head coach Joe Paterno. Paterno’s involvement in the scandal goes back to a 2002 incident when a graduate assistant says he told Paterno he had witnessed Sandusky assaulting a boy in the shower room. Paterno called the school’s director. Lawyers said Paterno is legally obligated to report something of this nature to his superiors, but not the police; report up and not outwards as they put it. Legal obligations should never be confused with moral and ethical ones.
Paterno has no equivalent in Canadian sport. On Penn State’s campus, to paraphrase John Lennon, he is more popular than Jesus Christ. He’s coached the Nittany Lions for 46 years, the longest serving coach in sports history; he’s a living hall of famer, and (was) one of the most revered figures in American sport. Paterno’s name adorns several campus buildings, including the library, and one typically doesn’t associate books with varsity football. He headed a football machine that earned the university $50 million a year. He was arguably the most powerful man on campus.
So when Paterno was fired, it was like the fall of Caesar. How did students at this preppy Ivy League institution react to the scandal and subsequent sacking of Paterno? With shame, disgust, outrage, with concern for the victims? No. Thousands ran rampant on their well manicured campus, rioting, setting off fireworks, turning over a media van, smashing parked cars, and generally exercising their rich-kid privilege in the most destructive of ways. They held signs proclaiming “Joe P Forever” and “We Love Joe”. A US sports magazine called it “the most idiotic and offensive mass riot in history.”
To calm their temper tantrum, state troopers had to be called in, batons out, backing up an overwhelmed campus security force. Now we on the modern left abhor state violence. Whether it is police brutality or imperial invasions, it’s something that we oppose on principle.
Yet, while watching the footage of this frat boy uprising, deep down inside me, in some dark authoritarian corner of my soul, I wanted to cast aside those principles just this once and find some joy in one of those jackass students getting a rightful smack across the head. Now isn’t that ironic?
Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 46 No. 1 Jan/Feb 2012