Be true to your school

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One of the first stories I ever followed on this blog was the University of Colorado rape and sexual abuse scandal. For those who’ve forgotten — there have been a lot of rape and sexual abuse scandals over the years — the University of Colorado football team was accused of using the promise of sexual favors as a recruiting tool. One former Colorado player who had the temerity to be female, Katie Hnida, came forward to admit that she had been raped while at the school.

Coach Gary Barnett responded by criticizing her skill as a kicker.

As these charges flew, Kate Fagan was inside the bubble. She played basketball for Colorado. She was put forward to answer the charges against the school, and to defend the institution.

Today, Fagan is a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. And she is regretful about the way she handled things as a 21-year-old, and she’s aware of its applicability to current events:

While NBC Nightly News dimmed the lights inside the arena, set up two chairs facing one another, and adjusted the cameras, I paced the baseline and wondered if my answers would make the University of Colorado proud.

My school was mired in a recruiting scandal. NBC wanted to know how a female student-athlete felt about the charge that our football program used sex as a recruiting tool. The national media were pouring into Boulder as if the coasts had been lifted, everyone tumbling to the middle.

We were closing ranks inside the athletic department. Buffaloes above all else. The University of Colorado was being attacked from all sides; we were in self-protection mode.

Those months in 2004 were a light sprinkle compared to the thunderstorm that has descended upon Penn State. Former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with sexually assaulting young boys. Important members of the hierarchy, such as head coach Joe Paterno and athletic director Tim Curley, are charged – some formally, some in the court of public opinion – with failing to report Sandusky’s actions to police, for failing to protect our children in favor of their program.

As a 21-year-old in Boulder, I couldn’t see the humanity – the women whose lives had been damaged – standing just outside our black-and-gold athletic gates. I pulled on my CU letter jacket and refused to understand why a few women wanted to destroy our athletic family.

Fagan’s conduct can be forgiven. She was 21. Like the students who inexplicably rioted in support of Joe Paterno, she was too young to have gained a sense of perspective, or an ability to step outside herself and place herself in someone else’s shoes. It takes time to develop empathy. Time living in the real world. And college students usually haven’t had any of that. She can be forgiven her lapse, especially as she’s done what we’re all called to do: grown up.

Big-time athletic programs are not entirely unlike nation-states. Everyone wears the colors, says the pledge, and sings the school anthem. Everyone worships the logo, recites the fight song, and reports up the chain of command.

Everyone’s committed to defeating a common enemy: Ohio State or Nebraska or Michigan.

This is what makes college athletics galvanizing and wonderful. And also, for anyone who has been inside it, it’s what can make college athletics frightening. When you’re inside, you’re often a rah-rah believer. Blind acceptance exists that coaches and administrators, those who have established the institution’s culture, possess absolute authority. They’re accountable only to one another or not at all. The bad stuff can be handled internally, must be handled internally, unless it’s so bad it seeps out the office door.

And this is why, of course, Joe Paterno had to be fired. Because Paterno handled this precisely like every other college program facing every other scandal has: by burying it. Allegations against Sandusky first surfaced in 1998. Sandusky quietly stepped down from the team in 1999. No less an authority on rogue programs than Barry Switzer said, “Having been in this profession a long time and knowing how close coaching staffs are, I knew that this was a secret that was kept secret. Everyone on that staff had to have known, the ones that had been around a long time.”

And yes, of course they did. Sandusky was investigated in 1998, in Joe Paterno’s town. Are you telling me he didn’t know? Paterno himself was told, flat out, that abuse had happened in Paterno’s own locker room. Did Paterno respond by going to the cops, or at least telling Mike McQueary to go to the cops? No, he passed it up the line, to his “superior.”

JoePa was the King of State College. He didn’t have superiors.

And as Fagan reminds us, the man Paterno notified would go on to fail less sickening, but no less serious tests of character:

Is it a coincidence that Penn State is responsible for two of the most inflammatory college scandals of the last quarter-century? Women’s basketball coach Rene Portland “resigned” amid charges of anti-gay discrimination. She had coached successfully at Penn State for 27 years. The Penn State administration – Curley was Penn State’s athletic director then, too – allowed Portland to run her program in whatever way suited her personal beliefs. She scared lesbians into the closet and revoked scholarships based on sexuality.

Just look the other way. Nothing to see here.

Sound familiar?

Sounds very familiar. Like every college scandal, from Miami to Oklahoma to Minnesota to Colorado to USC to Ohio State back to Miami and now to Penn State, and all the dozens of other stops in between.  Preserving the reputation of The Program becomes more important than preserving integrity as humans. As Fagan says:

But Penn State is no more guilty than other powerhouse athletic departments and universities. Believe this: These things could have happened anywhere. It’s the protective cocoon of big-time athletics.

The longer you reside within that cocoon, the more entrenched you become in the culture. Administrators and coaches often morph from humans who react with humanity into vassals charged with protecting the institutional image. Preserving legacy and mystique are placed ahead of a child’s – or a woman’s – pain.

Joe Paterno was supposed to be different. He was supposed to be more ethically pure than the lords who oversaw more maculate realms. But he wasn’t. When he and his program were confronted with a scandal that literally crosses every possible bright line, one that was almost metaphysically wrong, Paterno covered it up. For the 13 years from the time Sandusky was investigated by police in 1998, for the 11 years from the time a janitor saw Sandusky abusing a child, for the nine years from the time a grad assistant told him what he saw in the locker room, for the two years that Sandusky was under investigation by a grand jury, all the way up through the week where he became the winningest coach in Division I FBS history, Paterno kept silent, to preserve the reputation of The Program.

Today, The Program lies shattered, and Paterno is compared to Woody Hayes. Yes, inside the bubble, I’m sure it made sense to hide, to cover up, to obfuscate. But the vast majority of us live outside the bubble, and out here, the pain of a child rape victim is far more important than Penn State football could ever be.