STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 10: The Alabama Crimson Tide kicks off to the Penn State Nittany Lions during the second half at Beaver Stadium on September 10, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania. Alabama defeated Penn State 27-11. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The Penn State scandal puts all other college football scandals to shame, and it's a convenient opportunity to highlight everything that's wrong with the morality of college sports. But that's too easy.
Untold numbers of children were (allegedly) victimized in the most vile way possible, and knowing adults (allegedly) looked the other way. What's come to light at Penn State this week isn't a sports story, really. So using it to shine a light on the NCAA's blinding hypocrisy seems beside the point.
Nevertheless, it's a footnote that plenty of onlookers can't help but notice--and you can't really blame someone like Maurice Clarett when he comes forward to point out the obvious irony in all this.
They (immediately) kicked me out of all athletic facilities for driving some cars. [Joe Paterno] protected a molester and he stays put.
Not only that, but Jerry Sandusky was the molester, and he was never kicked out of the athletic facilities, and enjoyed continued VIP access to the Penn State program up until last week. This while guys like Clarrett become pariahs in the name of protecting a program's integrity.
There's something deeply disturbing about the whole thing, but for anyone looking at the NCAA with two eyes and a clear head, there's always been something deeply disturbing about the way certain athletes become villains when they take some cash, or a car, or... whatever, really. It's messed up. It's been messed up forever. Remember way back in the 1980s? When Penn State was considered the "good" battling Miami's "evil"?
All that stood between Miami and going down as one of the all-time great college teams ever was a Fiesta Bowl date with Penn State. The media loved the juxtaposition of the black-hat 'Canes against the "good-guy" Nittany Lions and their leader, Joe Paterno, aka Saint Joe, a virtual icon of clean living for white-bread America. They wore black shoes and had plain white-and-blue uniforms without any names on the back. They didn't say much, or at least much worth repeating. They appeared to be the anti-'Canes.
Penn State was a heavy underdog in that game, but they won thanks in large part to a brilliant gameplan by Jerry Sandusky. So Paterno, Sandusky, and the Nittany Lions were hailed as the ultimate champions--not just winners, but winners who defeated evil. A few days after the win, in January 1987, Newsweek ran a feature called, "Winning The Penn State Way". It's not online anymore, but here's an excerpt:
The cerebral and spiritual elements of sports events are easily overvalued. The Fiesta Bowl, the first bowl game between undefeated title contenders in 13 years, was an exception. This was a morality play in four periods. If Penn State's victory did not herald a worldwide swing to good over evil, it did represent a triumph for brains, maturity and a good-sense approach to sports.
The Nittany Lions didn't seek the goodguy role. Miami forced it upon them. After spending much of their glorious season on campus-police blotters for alleged violations ranging from shoplifting to running over a few toes to settle an argument over a parking space, the Hurricanes didn't bother to soften their image in the national spotlight. They descended upon Tempe in a thunderous confusion of free spirits and unlicensed boorishness.
And it ended like this:
Defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was quick to bring the desert dreams back to earth. "You don't teach desire," he said. "It's a part of guys. They suffer for it, use it in their lives. When it pays off for them, they've earned it." The Penn State way.
It's tempting to take the bait and point out what a phenomenal crock of shit this looks like in hindsight and how poorly it all reflects on the NCAA's traditional understanding of morality and virtue. It's an open-and-shut case. But then, hasn't it always been?
"The Penn State way" was as much a crock of shit in 1987 as it seems in 2011. It's endemic to the way college football's packaged, and it's never, ever made much sense. All the puttering college pundits demonizing guys like Cam Newton and lionizing guys like Tim Tebow. Didn't we always know that was all a lie cloaked in stereotypes and pandering?
The crucifixion of Maurice Clarrett was wrong.
The demonization of the Miami Hurricanes was wrong.
The grand inquisition into Cam Newton was wrong, too.
We know this.
If you're looking to use the Penn State scandal as an excuse to expose the NCAA's towering wrongness, feel free. Fire away. Just know that you're firing at an easy target. The point is obvious, and anyone with a brain understood the NCAA's culture of chastity has always been a farce dressed in nostalgia for an era that never really existed. Society's always been too quick to brand individuals and institutions as fundamentally wicked or wholesome, and it happens within the framework of college sports more than just about anywhere in American life. It's all wrong.
But it's nowhere near as wrong as what happened at Penn State. And in the end, this is a human tragedy we're talking about. There is no morality play when everyone's morality failed. College sports has problems, but this is a whole different scale. So with all due respect to Maurice Clarrett's completely justified resentment, using this to attack the NCAA's hypocrisy just feels cheap.
So what does the Penn State say about the NCAA and college football? Nothing new, really.
And next to what happened in State College, focusing your energy on the skewed morality of college sports is as simplistic and superficial and ass-backwards as the institution itself.