Friday, November 18, 2011

Vacating Morality

Oh but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” 
                                               – Bob Dylan

As a society, with the way today’s 24/7 media coverage works, we tend to overanalyze and pile on things. If Tim Tebow had played quarterback in 1987, he might have been an interesting topic, but there certainly wouldn’t be endless segments on Sportscenter where a bunch of dudes just sit around and argue about him for five minutes. And that’s just one example. A lot of things are that way. Everything is that way. Until something drags you back to reality.

College sports are a fascinating subject. Interest is high, passion is fervent, coverage is limitless and scandals are rampant. Investigating top-tier college football and basketball programs is a bit like doing a kitchen inspection at your favorite restaurant: if you look long and hard enough, you’re probably going to find something you don’t particularly like. And in recent years, it’s been more like doing an inspection of that small, poorly lit Chinese restaurant down the road from your house. You know, the one that has all those stray cats hanging around out back.

Just in the past few years, we have seen colleges exposed for providing improper benefits to student-athletes, whether it be providing funds or accessories for the kids and their families, giving the kids more money than they actually deserve for a fake job, or simply handing them envelopes of cash. We’ve heard of team members getting in trouble for selling their own jerseys and memorabilia, booster members throwing ridiculous parties or providing lavish gifts to players, and coaches getting in trouble for calling a player too many times, sending text messages at the “wrong” time, or picking up the tab on a recruit’s dinner.

We condemn these acts, condemn the kids, condemn the coaches, condemn the system. We argue over whether or not student-athletes should be paid, whether that would solve the problems or simply make them worse. We balance getting free tuition and education against players being a slave to money-hungry schools, conferences, championships, bowl games and sponsors; “why isn’t a free education enough?” vs “why don’t they deserve a cut of all the money they bring in?”. We tear down the secrecy, greed and under-the-table deals as if the entire structure were the most despicable and wicked institution in existence.

And then Penn State happens.

Consider the Ohio State football situation. I live in Cincinnati, go to school at Ohio University in Athens, and have a roommate whose brother plays for the Buckeyes, so I’m more than aware of all that has gone on there in the past year at OSU, and yet removed enough to have a somewhat objective opinion on it. Essentially, star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and a few other players (some more notable than others) got busted for exchanging autographs and memorabilia for free/discounted tattoos, and probably some cash or other benefits (although to be fair, we can’t know for sure). Pryor was also seen driving numerous nice cars around campus, something of which you can probably draw your own conclusions on.

Anyways, Ohio State was practically crucified for these transgressions. Head coach Jim Tressel was fired, players were suspended, a few left the program, and one of the top teams in the country came out the other side with a far inferior squad and one heck of a black eye. Shambles. Complete and utter shambles.

And then Penn State happens.

It’s early enough in the Penn State process that we can’t say for sure what has happened, as nothing has gone to trial. But because you’d have to be a hermit (or Aston Kutcher) to not know about the situation, here’s the short version: a PSU assistant coach has allegedly been molesting and sexually abusing young boys over the past few decades, largely using his position with Penn State to commit these acts. He was apparently questioned about it very quietly in-house in the ‘90s (with no public punishment or acknowledgment), and was then allegedly caught by another assistant coach while raping a 10-year-old boy in the locker room shower in 2002. This coach, after seeing this take place, allegedly told (legendary) head coach Joe Paterno about the situation, who allegedly reported it to his “superiors,” who then allegedly handled the situation very quietly (again) without taking any legal action (again). And in the past few weeks, all of this information came gushing out. As a result, just about everyone involved with the university and program that supposedly had knowledge or a hand in the situation has been fired or put on administrative leave. Once more, I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new here. But what stands out (aside from the horrible accusations of this case, which have been covered at length by reporters that are far more competent than I) is how stark the contrasts are between this situation and the other so-called “scandals” surrounding college sports.

I’m not condoning the acceptance of improper benefits. I’m not suggesting coaches should be able to take whatever measures they please when recruiting potential student-athletes. I’m not even sure where I stand on the whole “should college players be paid/compensated” argument, because I feel like there are legitimate points for each side. But I do know that, retrospectively, it feels pretty stupid raising such a big stink about free tattoos or illegal text messages when children are possibly being raped and molested, and then coaches and administrations are spending eight or nine years keeping quiet about it. What Jim Tressel did (or didn’t do, in terms of reporting his team’s violations) was wrong. But when thinking back to how his character and integrity were questioned and vilified, and then comparing it to what  Paterno did (or didn’t do, in terms of taking further actions with the rape/molestation charges), it kind of makes you sick to your stomach.

Oddly enough, Paterno saw an outpouring of support from Penn State football fans through this whole ordeal. Now I understand what JoePa has meant to that program over the years, and no, Paterno isn’t even the main villain here. But he’s one of them. Jerry Sandusky, the assistant coach accused of committing these crimes, is obviously the biggest offender. And yet that doesn’t change the fact that all of those involved were clearly in the wrong. Jerry Sandusky not only committed alleged morally offensive and reprehensible acts (I think child molestation is one of those few universal “wrongs,” regardless of one’s belief or culture), but he allegedly committed crimes – serious crimes – that could hold some serious punishments. At the very least, they deserve to be investigated. Paterno and the rest of the Penn State administrators that knew of these things prevented those investigations from happening for almost a decade. Sandusky will have to answer (and pay) for these allegations, one way or another. You can be sure of that. It just shouldn’t have taken this long to start the process.

Should Paterno’s slate be washed clean simply because he fulfilled the duties of his job description by notifying his superiors? Hell no. What about his duties as a citizen, as a human being? How can he be trusted or qualified to lead young men if (as the record currently states) he had at least some knowledge of Sandusky’s actions and did nothing to protect those young boys? Reporting to your superiors really doesn’t hold much clout if you see them on a daily basis for the next handful of years and never once bring up the accusations again or do anything about it on your own. If what we know now is in any way true, then Sandusky’s crimes are gross and obvious. But so are Paterno’s (and everyone else’s involved).

JoePa wasn’t fired for “lack of morality,” although in this case, those grounds probably would have been justified, as slippery a slope as that may be. But he was fired for the crimes and misdeeds that his “lack of morality” allowed to take place, unpunished and unbeknownst to the public or proper authorities. Don’t let his career wins or the fact that he “fulfilled his duties” let you think otherwise.

I generally refrain from delving into such deep or controversial topics on this blog, mainly because I don’t really think this is the proper venue for that. But I found it striking how harsh we as a society judge college sports, and how fundamentally it all seemed to change with the allegations at Penn State. Even as I type this, an investigation is being launched regarding a longtime assistant basketball coach for Syracuse and allegations of child abuse and molestation in the 1980s. One accuser has pointed to the Penn State situation as motivation for him to come forward in the Syracuse case. It pretty much puts everything into perspective, huh?

Again, I’m not condoning what took place at Ohio State or any other university that has faced punishment or allegations. What I can tell you is that if I were a 20-year-old dumbass college athlete (as opposed to the 22-year-old dumbass college student I am now), and someone was trying to give me cash or cars or whatever simply because I was good at sports, I would have had one heck of time wrestling with myself over whether to accept those things or not. And if I was that athlete, and knew that one of my teammates was accepting benefits or one of my coaches was using some fishy recruiting methods, I probably wouldn’t say anything. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s just the truth. If most people were being honest, they’d probably tell you the exact same thing. But if it were a Penn State situation? If cars and cash became child abuse? Yeah, that changes everything. And I think that says something, if the difference wasn’t already obvious enough.

I’m a big  fan and follower of college sports, and as a potential (and hopeful) journalist, it is part of my job to know and report and possibly hold opinions on these types of subjects, just as it is for others in the field and profession and society. And the next time a big-name collegiate athlete gets caught taking some cash or driving a car he didn’t pay for, or a coach gets busted for recruiting violations, you can probably assume that it will be looked upon a little differently by those parties. It doesn’t make it less wrong, but it’s certainly not the same either. We now know too much. We’ve seen the darkest of the dark side.

College sports can be a seedy, disturbing and scandalous business. And that was before Penn State happened.

Oh but we were so much older then…

Thanks for reading

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