Friday, July 13, 2012

The Freeh Report

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh released his comprehensive report on the Penn State situation yesterday. It's fair to say that it doesn't draw any new conclusions- we already knew that Penn State used its institutional power to cover for Sandusky, and we already knew that Joe Paterno's role- whether one of active participation or willful ignorance- was enough to give the lie to his public image. But if the conclusions aren't new, there's still value, here; there is a value in laying out all the details, sordid as they may be, and in producing one primary source summing up the whole horrid affair. It puts everything in context, and gives us a good starting point to understand what happened.

(I say just a "starting point" because the report excludes some important information. Most notably, as Dave Zirin points out, the report is mostly silent on former PA Attorney General- and current PA Governor- Tom Corbett's role. Even if Corbett was ultimately in the clear, it was still worth discussing. But Zirin covers that; I'm talking about something else here.)

That context reveals, frankly, that Penn State isn't all that dissimilar from any other school with a big-time football program. Now, let's be clear, cheating athletes out of money and devoting too many public resources to football is not morally equivalent to covering for a child molester; both are bad, but the second is clearly far more intense. But they do have the same root causes; an over-dependence on college football, especially the money and prestige it brings in, and a blind desire to protect that program.

I'm not saying Nick Saban or Les Miles would try to cover up a crime committed by their defensive coordinators.But they do feel intense pressure to make bad decisions in the name of "protecting the program"- demanding more money than the school can afford, pushing athletes into easy, useless classes, accepting and endorsing the "student-athlete" system that deprives athletes of just compensation. And when they do these things, it puts pressure up and down the administrative chain at the school, so that athletic directors, school Presidents, even Boards of Trustees are pushed into the same bad decisions. It's not the same as committing an outright crime, but it comes from the same place.

What's more, the romantic "molding boys into men" narrative of college football creates a cognitive dissonance that makes fans, alumni, and students blind to these problems, or at least dreadfully slow to react to them. Penn State fans are having so much trouble understanding the depth of Paterno's culpability here because it's hard to reconcile that with his original image. And that's in the wake of an intense and horrible crime and documentation that is all but unimpechable. When it's a more mundane evil, like a recruitment violation or the NCAA/conference system cabal, it's going to be all but invisible to fans who are conditioned to think of their coach as a virtuous champion.

Fortunately, there's a lot we fans can do to relieve some of this pressure and clear up the cognitive dissonance. First of all, if we're alumni, we can stop making our money contingent on the football team, and stop giving directly to the athletic department. That's easy for me 'cause I don't have money, but if you're rich and reading this, it's not hard for you, either; donate to the school's general fund, or the English department, or me. Or, at very least, stop picking up the phone and raising hell after every losing season.

We can also, as fans, just try not to be pricks so much. Cheering for the team is great; pep rallys are awesome, spontaneously rushing the field or taking to the streets after a win is amazing. But rioting after a loss just makes you an asshole. Locking arms with a coach or player when you know he's done something wrong makes you a twat. These guys are human, they're going to fuck up. You're not a worse fan for noting when they do. You're actually better because you're expecting more of them.

Finally, we can let the penny drop on the "leadership" qualities of college football coaches and athletic administrators. They're not there to turn a bunch of high school kids into Medal of Honor winners, they're there to win football games. And that's an incredibly hard job with a lot of pressure pushing them in a lot of different ways. None of them are Ghandi; none of them are hired to be Ghandi, and really, none of us want them to be Ghandi (Ghandi always always ALWAYS got fooled into committing too much to the pass rush). The sooner we acknowledge and accept all of that, the better.

Because treating these guys as if they're something more than just guys with hard jobs in the public eye is how Penn State got into it's mess. And again, it's not always going to turn out that, but it's always going to raise the risks of bullshit. If we can decrease the risk of all the bullshit, including horrors like Jerry Sandusky, well, there's no reason not to try.

1 comment:

  1. Ultimately it is a case of follow the money. A head coach at Miami, OH is going to have an easier time calling out rules infractions, and an administrator could more easily stand up to that coach if he didn't, because Miami, OH doesn't stand to lose millions of dollars if such moral courage ends up costing them a few games. We can talk about Joe Pa's desire to protect his legacy, but that legacy is impossible to disentangle from the commercial success that has come with that program's historical athletic success. And that's really where administrators butt up against the "legend" of Joe Pa. Sure, maybe Joe Pa was only concerned with how he'd look if it came out he hired a child molester (his legacy). The school though is going to think "losing recruits + losing sponsors + losing games = losing $$$$" And not men's wrestling team ticket revenue money, millions of dollars.