Cloak of immunity

The Penn State scandal is unspeakably horrifying. The initial accusations against Jerry Sandusky were bad enough to oust not only the college president but also the legendary coach of the Nittany Lions, Joe Paterno. And we’re now hearing suggestions that we’ve only heard the tip of the iceberg of this story.

There’s multiple aspects to this story. One that I’ve been very interested in piecing together, especially from the perspective of a journalism student, are the reactions that people have had to this scandal, especially in Pennsylvania, my home state. They’re not the reactions one would initially expect.

I know this area; I grew up halfway between Pittsburgh and Johnstown, two of the most intensely dedicated football towns anywhere in the country. (There’s a reason All The Right Moves was filmed in Johnstown.)

In Western Pennsylvania, football is a religion. And if football is a religion, Joe Paterno was God. Or, at minimum, St. Peter.

Which leads me to the thing I find very, very curious: the cloak of innocence, the automatic benefit of the doubt, that’s granted to players and coaches when they get into legal trouble.

I wrote about this very topic a year ago in this blog. At that time, it was Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under the microscope for allegedly raping a girl in a bar. Michael Vick and OJ Simpson are two other notable cases where the reactions to the alleged crime, or perceptions about the accused, was tempered in some eyes by their athletic achievements.

The equation seems to be as follows: “[Insert suspect's name here] is a great [coach/player/quarterback] so ergo, they must be innocent of [insert criminal act/inappropriate event here].” I don’t understand how that becomes the first response to an accusations, especially ones as heinous and horrifying as these ones.

I don’t condone the idiotic riots that happened after Paterno’s firing, but in some ways, I understand the kindling that made them catch fire. Football is a religion, after all. And PSU supporters were just told there is no God.

The conflicting tsunami of emotions that students and members of the community have felt aren’t in any way tidy, or structured. And I suppose it’s human nature that people can be both horrified and angry at someone and still respect or admire or love them; these are undoubtedly feelings that many are processing about Paterno.

The whole mess is beyond hideous, and I’m angry at the at the school, at Coach Paterno and at the rioters. More than anything or anyone, I’m furious at Sandusky and at a loss to understand why justice against him has taken so long.

But I still find it curious how, as with religion, some people have unshakeable faith in the people they follow. No matter how much evidence comes to light, no matter how bad or unflattering the facts are, it happens. I’m seeing it everywhere now: poor Joe Paterno. How can his career end this way? (Huh? How about the victims?)

Faith and facts have been struggling for thousands of years; I don’t suppose reconciling the two will be any simpler now.

3 comments

  1. I see eye to eye with you on this. As a Pittsburgher/Pennsylvanian, I have been at a loss since Roethlisberger’s sexual assault cases and now this. What kind of culture is being fostered where people write the innocence of children off as a necessity to protect their jobs and/or a football program? I don’t know how these people can live with themselves.

    I would guarantee most of these people rallying for JP haven’t read the Grand Jury Report. I certainly don’t recommend it–it’s like being punched in the gut every page–I think some of these “kids” need to read it to understand how horrific this whole thing is. One of the coaches on my brother’s athletic staff made it all of two paragraphs into that report and couldn’t read anymore.

  2. When football-olatry gets out of hand, winning comes to be the most important thing. And football is famous for stirring tribal loyalties on the level of the Trojan War. (“We can’t have both a college and a football team. Tomorrow, we start tearing down the college.”) My estimation is that if feeding the players infant’s flesh guaranteed a bowl victory, people would condone it. I mean, if the coaches and players also had to, say, obey the law, you might have to occasionally trade one in for one who was slightly less good at winning games. It doesn’t help that football intrinsically places a premium on strength and interpersonal violence, either; it’s going to tend to filter for people who have a low objection to brutishness.

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