[Content Note: discussion of the Sandusky coverup and the sexual assault of children.]
New coach overcomes the odds (caused by big punishment that was done because program was led and protected by horrific people for years and years – the article linked there calls this PSU’s “resurrection season”).
Coach of the year candidate.
Less than one season and we already have a Penn State football redemption story.
WHO COULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT?
O’Brien is on an 18-person-long “watch list” for the Paul Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award (they will soon shorten that to 5 to 10 coaches, the winner being announced in the middle of January). Members of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association vote on the winner.
I don’t have a problem with O’Brien specifically. Or any PSU players.
I have a problem with the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters in the US participating in a redemption narrative for PSU so quickly after Sandusky’s crimes were publicly declared and the coverup by Paterno and PSU bigwigs was uncovered.
I have a problem with our unending desire for a “redemption” narrative generally. Dan Solomon (who, to be clear, was writing about individual redemption narratives) has argued:
We are so hungry for redemption stories, and so primed to find reasons within the narrative to offer redemption, that we equate “success” with “atonement.”
This is my fear with stories about PSU football, success, redemption, and atonement.
It’s not simply that bad people were in charge of the PSU football team (though that was part of it) but that the obsessive, hero-making culture around football both at PSU and at colleges across this country created the power and the space for Paterno, the university president, and the athletic director to sweep under the rug what they knew about Sandusky. They obviously felt they could get away it (they were right for a long, long time) and that it was better to hide the truth than to protect children from a rapist because hiding the truth meant securing the future of the football program.
And now we are at a point where PSU’s success on the field is very close to equalling atonement for the ills of the program, a sign of moving forward from the evils of the past. This need to move on so quickly, to already be celebrating PSU football again is a symptom of that damaging obsessive, hero-making football culture.
After all that, I’ll be honest and say that I always assumed that by the end of this football season we’d have the beginnings of the redemption narrative for PSU football. This post has always been inevitable. Had PSU done terribly this season, the narrative would not be about O’Brien’s coaching but rather that the Penn State team did their best despite the odds (even if their best had been terrible and even if those odds existed due to horrific circumstances created by the very program for which we are now told to applaud). I bet O’Brien, when he took the job, knew that part of what he would get out of it was a heroic characterization. Even if they failed to be a good football team, he would be seen as a selfless crusader who attempted to build back up a battered but beloved football program run low by tragic scandal, a scandal in which he had no part.
On some level, I think people wanted to believe that the penalties the NCAA doled out against PSU would lead to a terrible season (that was the point of the penalties, right?). It’s why every single PSU game has been on TV this year – so we could all watch the punishment in action, collectively pat ourselves on the back, voyeurs to the downfall we demanded.
Yet that need to feel like we did the right thing butts up against our desire to see individuals succeed in the face of adversity (again, no matter why that adversity exists). So, while we can (maybe) all agree that PSU and/or its football program deserved (some sort of) punishment, what about the coaches and individuals who are at PSU now who had nothing to do with covering up the rape of children? As Melissa McEwan wrote to me tonight, the national media talking about O’Brien as a Coach of the Year candidate and the great things that the PSU team and players have done “creates the line past which anyone who still cares is a bitter hysteric. The official period of acceptable anger has been called. Time to move on! And if you won’t, you’re ruining innocent players’ and coaches’ lives.”
And that is part of a larger problem I have with the PSU coverage generally: when you posit that we should celebrate this PSU football season and the coach who created it because to do otherwise would be punishing the innocent players and coaches, you flatten all the many different victims into a single category. And I’m just going to keep refusing to see the players and coaches at PSU or the community of Happy Valley as an equal or bigger concern than the children that Sandusky raped or the system of football worship that allowed the coverup of sexual abuse to happen at all.
Instead, I will just continue to yell that the resurrection is only necessary because the football program and the people in charge of the university conspired to cover up a child rapist. YEARS AND YEARS this coverup happened. YEARS AND YEARS went by that PSU and the PSU football program willingly turned a blind eye to the actions of a child rapist knowing that by doing so they were enabling the rape of children. Can’t we have even a little room to criticize the machine that caused all of that? Don’t people see that if we don’t criticize that we are just all actively participating once more in the very circumstances that created the culture at PSU that we all wanted the NCAA to punish?
There’s going to be a narrative around PSU football. If that narrative doesn’t include a discussion about systemic problems in college football, or the child victims of Jerry Sandusky, or the failure of a university to protect children, the narrative is incomplete.
I want to end with some quotes from a NYT times article that was published today. It is about how (supposedly) no one at PSU wants to talk about Paterno anymore.
“Some people at Penn State still want to discuss every detail — what did Joe know and when,” said Christian M. M. Brady, dean of the Penn State Schreyer Honors College. “But most here are done with that. They are tired of it. There is compassion for Jerry Sandusky’s victims and a passion to raise our awareness. There is a fatigue for the rest of it.”
“People have stopped talking about Joe Paterno here because they are indeed ready to do just that — to move forward, to move on,” [Paul] Harvey [head of the classics and ancient Mediterranean studies department] said.
“He’s gone, and I’m sorry about that,” Harvey said of Paterno. “But we are not resurrecting the nuances and details of the case any longer. We know the harm that was caused, and no one shies from that. But there’s also sympathy for the Paterno family. Discussing it — bringing him up again and again — is only making it harder on them.”
Steve Manuel, a public relations lecturer at Penn State and a former spokesman for the Pentagon, is often asked to address groups about crisis communications. This month, a monthly forum sponsored by the Penn State faculty and staff asked him to speak. It was near the anniversary of Sandusky’s arrest. “I figured they wanted me to say something about the university’s crisis handling — about Sandusky, Paterno, the whole thing,” Manuel said last week. “And they said, ‘No, everyone is tired of that.’ People don’t want to bring it up.”
The entire piece mentions Sandusky’s actual child victims twice.
“They are tired of it.” People are ready “to move forward, to move on.” “We are not resurrecting the nuances and details of the case any longer.” “Everyone is tired of that.” “People don’t want to bring it up.”
Whitney (@arieswym) calls this “the privilege of forgetting.” Actual victims of the crime don’t have that privilege.
As my friends pointed out to me on Twitter, this NYT piece could be straight up incorrect in its characterization of the PSU community and how the majority of people are responding to the long-term fallout of the Sandusky coverup. But I am interested in how the national story about all of this is getting told and this NYT piece is a good example. Plus, the NYT isn’t wrong about how national sports media is handling it.
The redemption narrative around O’Brien and the PSU football program doesn’t exist in some kind of vacuum divorced from the scandal that led to O’Brien’s hiring and, I reiterate, the need for redemption in the first place. At least some people at PSU would like to move on. Sports media certainly wants to move on. How predictable.