Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State Piety and Americana

This is not an objective, unbiased view. I'm biased. I'm Black and grew up in Miami during the 1980s. Like most of my friends, I was a Miami Hurricane football fan. And they were two schools that consistently shown as the anti-Hurricanes in piety, cleanliness, and Americana: Notre Dame and Penn State.

When Penn State upset the hot shot Hurricanes to win the national championship in 1987, it was seen as a victory for Constitution, flag pins, and whole milk. Reagan proudly welcomed the winning team into the White House and made sure to note the cultural purity of the Penn State players and the reason why America rallied behind them and against the loud, brash (and mostly poor and Black) Hurricane team lead by Jimmy Johnson. This wasn't just about sports. This was about culture and Republicans made sure to highlight the differences.

Miami Hurricanes were called 'trash, convicts, thugs, murderers' and scandal soon befell the school. The scandal was financial in nature as student athlete accepted bribes, cars, and loans from boosters. Very little pity or understanding was shown toward students who came from inner cities, worked diligently on the football field to make the NCAA millions of dollars, and had to worry about the Miami-Dade bus schedule to get around town. It did not matter that many students had children they had to feed, parents who depended upon them for financial support, and a variety of pressures that should not be on a teenager. What little leniency that might have been shown to the organization was crushed by Canes swagger: they liked to celebrate after plays, trash talk, and put on a show. This was deemed unfit behavior and the bribery only helped re-enforce the convict view of the Canes.
Sports Illustrated called for the Hurricane death penalty. It was too much scandal and rancor in the swamp to fix things. The Hurricanes were a lost cause and the adults in charge were just as bad as the athletes.

In contrast to Miami's coaches there was Joe Paterno. Jimmy Johnson was a trash-talking Southern hick trying to win games and Joe Paterno was a stern figure building men. Dennis Erickson was a corrupt alcoholic trying to grab as many rings as possible while Paterno was molding the future of America. Still the majority of rage was directed about the mostly Black teenager athletes, while the UM administrators and coaches got a pass in the media.

In light of the last decade of sexual scandal from Catholic-lead institutions and now Penn State I wonder if there will be any calls for the death penalty for Penn State? If poor students taking bribes is an un-Godly crime against the sanctity of the NCAA, then where on the continuum of crimes should we place a coach systematically raping boys in the locker room and an university covering it up for a decade?

And the way the story is being handled and the very fact that Sports Illustrated will not call for the death penalty for this highlights that sports is never about sports. Penn State vs. Miami was never about swagger vs. tradition. It was, is, and will continue to be about those uncomfortable things we never want to talk about in sports: race and class.

It is this very assumption of privilege afforded to Penn State that allowed its institution to believe they could actually cover these crimes committed against the voiceless. It is the exact mentality of a small select privileged group being above the law that allows a coach to set up a not-for-profit organization that funneled poor kids to him and to work out a deal with a university that worried more about its image than the underprivileged it claimed to be protecting.

When we don't talk about race and class in sports, we re-enforce old privileges and status. And while everyone was and is still bemoaning mostly poor Black teenagers wanting to have a nice car or go on a vacation, it is the wealthy adult coaches and administrators who often do far worst things.

There will be those who say that now is not the time to have this conversation. Now we should worry about the victims and the crimes committed. But that is exactly why we should be having this conversation now because this probably isn't personality-based, but systematic and socio-cultural.
Can there be any doubt that if the Second Mile were tended to privileged White kids instead of the poor, that these crimes would have come to light 10 years ago? And if the very nature in which we confront wrongdoing in sports either leads to its end or the silent allowance of its continuation, then lens through which we view sports scandal must be corrected. It can't be corrected by ignoring the hypocrisy or just scapegoating on a few bad people. This sports culture of privilege has to be changed by the media and by its leaders.

I have no doubt that a year from now LeBron James will still be hated by large portions of the country for an 'arrogant' one-hour TV special that, by the way, donated millions to the Boys and Girls Club for underprivileged children and teenagers. And after a few mea culpa interviews, a confessional book, and maybe a media relations salvage job, Joe Paterno will be returned to the Mt. Rushmore of Sports. Think about that for a second. LeBron James will be hated for the way in which he legally left a team as a free agent, but Paterno -who allowed boys to get raped in his locker room for years- will be forgiven.

Meanwhile, in other news, NCAA continues its crackdown on style of players celebrating thanks to the 'horrors' of Canes swagger. They relive the nightmares of uncouth players dancing in the end zone and holding up National Championship trophies. If only these same NCAA officials would have other nightmares of the underprivileged getting taking advantage of then maybe we could fix the lens through which we view our heroes and villains.

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