By Arturo R. García
TRIGGER ALERT for subject matter relating to rape
For the sake of their safety, we don’t know the race, or any other identifying detail, of any of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged victims. But the tweet above is still right: what happened at Penn State University Wednesday night was about privilege. And it’s time sports fans started owning up to that.
On Wednesday, the university fired beloved football coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier, in the wake of not only 40 counts of alleged felony sex abuse against Sandusky, a former assistant of Paterno’s, but grand-jury testimony revealing that Paterno, Spanier and other coaches and administrators were seemingly more concerned with protecting their own asses than the well-being of the children Sandusky allegedly terrorized.
What followed was maybe the single biggest display of stupidity undertaken by members of a college population: they rioted in the streets supporting a man who continue to employ a possible sex offender, even after being informed of “something inappropriate” happening in his team’s very facilities. And like schoolyard bullies, some had the nerve to portray themselves as victims:
“I think the point people are trying to make is the media is responsible for Joe Pa going down,” said freshman Mike Clark, 18, adding that he believed Mr. Paterno met both his legal and moral responsibility by telling university authorities about Mr. Sandusky’s alleged 2002 assault on a boy in a school shower.
Demonstrators tore down two lampposts, one falling into a crowd of students. They also threw rocks and fireworks at police, who responded with pepper spray. The crowd undulated like an accordion, with the students crowding the police and the officers pushing them back.
“We got rowdy and we got maced,” Jeff Heim, 19, said rubbing his red, teary eyes. “But make no mistake, the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend.”
The platitudes are as commonplace among sports fans as they are nauseating: The media is responsible. Our coach. The Us vs. Them mentality that has bred a million Jocks Vs. Nerds cliches, fueled endless hours of talk radio trash-talk – and let’s not forget, made billions of dollars for both Penn State and kindly ol’ “JoePa.” He was bigger than the institution, people said; he was an institution. After decades of exemplifying the most gratifying of sports homilies, his coaching career ends proving another truism: Power Corrupts.
Improbably, Paterno is the second “icon” to sully his own legacy within the past few years. His downfall was preceded by that of former womens’ basketball coach Rene Portland, revealed to be a raging homophobe during her 30-year tenure, as chronicled in the documentary Training Rules:
As Outsports’ Cyd Zeigler Jr. wrote in 2009:
The point of the film isn’t to simply tell the story of Rene Portland’s homophobic reign of terror and the young women she tossed into the gutter: It’s meant to make you feel it. When former player Lisa Faloon says, “Rene explained to all of us that we weren’t to talk to a lesbian, and if we were a lesbian, she specifically said, I will take your scholarship away and you will never play basketball again,” it lays the foundation for a series of stories of heartache from women who didn’t have the strength to stand up to Portland and the juggernaut of Penn State athletics. The film focuses on a half dozen other women, straight and gay, who were victims of Portland’s intolerance. Hearing women who played for Portland from 1980 to the late 1990s talk about how Portland undermined their self-confidence, attacked them, and shattered their lifelong dreams is heart-wrenching.
Portland’s transgressions were more direct, to be sure, and it’s good to report that she was also removed from her position – for me, particularly, because I met her after PSU played my alma mater years ago and it makes my skin crawl to think I was that close to well-hidden prejudice – but it operated from a similar place as Sandusky’s transgressions: I have the control and you do not.
This is far beyond the “lack of institutional control” cited by the NCAA when it comes to penalizing athletic programs. Penn State has tacitly engaged in institutional abuse of women and children who came to it because they felt they’d be safe there. If Southern Methodist can lose its’ football program for paying players under the table, then how can Penn State’s possibly be allowed to continue?
Some have argued that the idiots caught on camera Wednesday night will come to regret their actions, once they have kids of their own. I sincerely doubt that. It’s just as likely that they will become the sort of people who engage in ever-escalating acts of vandalism to prove their “loyalty.” The kind who will blame “the media” and the victims for daring to speak up. They will become the bullies who teach their own kids to “man up” and Listen to Coach. They will become the people who harass women online. They will become precisely the kinds of people who create the Rene Portlands and (allegedly) the Jerry Sanduskys of the world.