Big-time college football is home to enough small grossnesses that fans barely notice them anymore. Actually, small may not be the right word for these thousands of legalistic elisions and micro-oversights and case-specific ethical lapses. The millions in tax dollars paid to coaches and assistant coaches and athletic directors for knowing the most effective of those oversights and lapses make them more abstract and farther reaching than the particulars of any isolated incident. Public employee salaries do kick up some froth from the ever-seething Don’t Tread On Me caucus, but whether it’s that set’s genuflective reflex towards people making that kind of money or something else, complaints about those particular salaries are most often seen in poignantly cheesedicked unsigned newspaper editorials, and not seen often even there. It’s all strange, but if you care about college football you have already gotten used to it.
The massiveness of those uglinesses makes them abstract, and thus has the odd effect of turning what are actually smaller – or at least more specific – offenses into the greater grossnesses, at least in terms of how long they persist in public memory. All these queasy hiccupps are symptomatic, but they fit more easily in memories and news cycles than the abstractions of what is actually the larger rot. Those broader scummeries periodically lead to specific outrages like the University of Washington ignoring any number of awful things to keep a rapey menace like Jerramy Stevens out of jail for three terrifying years, or the University of Miami’s signature inability to notice while a creepy booster named Nevin Shapiro funded eight years worth of hookers-on-boats for football players. Those are what we remember long after we go back to forgetting all the endemic uglinesses that make these sexier mini-outrages not just possible, but constant.
The story of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State football – the former being the 67-year-old man charged with 40 counts of the vilest sexual abuse against eight pre-teen boys over a 15-year period, the latter being his employer for 30 years between 1969 and 1999, the last two decades of that as Defensive Coordinator and ostensible head-coach-in-waiting – is not like any of the outrages, abstract or concrete, to which college football fans have inured themselves. It is incalculably sadder and worse and more horrible, for all the obvious reasons. Some sort of insufficient justice is en route – two school officials have been charged with perjury and failure to report a crime in relation to the case, and have left their posts; iconic head coach Joe Paterno, after 60 years at Penn State, has been disgraced by a legally correct/morally awkward response to the graduate assistant who came to him, in 2002, after having seen Sandusky in a locker-room shower with a 10-year-old; Sandusky, who has maintained his innocence, will spend the rest of what promises to be a pretty miserable life in prison if he’s found guilty. All of it is terrible, and terrible to talk about.
And so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is being talked about terribly. College football’s discourse – a spazzy, shouty shitscape of scientistic wrongness and empty certitude – could not be less well equipped to handle something of this scope, scale or dead-serious nightmarishness. People whose job it is to get huffy about college football – and the long-time-listener-first-time-caller squeakers who do it for free on sports-talk radio – are used to responding to violations that exist along a smallish scummery spectrum to an audience that has grown fat, dumb and mean on the sentimental, empty-calorie pomp that defines The College Football Experience. The NCAA’s vacuous dedication to criminalizing and righteously punishing random picayunities doesn’t help much in terms of moral clarity; Rick Neuheisel, the coach who worked with skeevy ardor to keep the aforementioned Stevens eligible throughout his Rohypnol-powered, x-treme DUI joyride at Washington, finally got in trouble with the NCAA for… betting in an office NCAA pool. This case, again and at the risk of belaboring the point, is beyond the scope of any of that.
Instead, we have a crime so horrible as to make the usual steakheaded hyperbole, weepy-dad sentimentalisms and misplaced seriousness of college football discourse look even more horrible in turn; from Paterno, we have a wrenching and complicated disappointment from a legitimately and justifiably revered leader-of-men, instead of the ordinary gone-in-a-week outrages over tactical miscalculations or the usual recruited-the-wrong-sociopath misjudgments or caught-doing-dirt scuzz bloopers. That Paterno was cowardly in a recognizably human way in his limpish response to the charges doesn’t make his conduct any less troubling or saddening or nauseating, depending on your perspective.
If Paterno inarguably did more – or was at least more honest about how little he did when the state’s attorney came calling – than the two Penn State officials facing seven-year sentences for their shameful roles in the case, it’s very difficult indeed to say that it seems as if he did enough. It’s also difficult to read the excruciating 23-page indictment and not wonder how Paterno could have known nothing about the similar charges that preceded Sandusky’s departure from the program in 1999. If this doesn’t undo the many admirable things about Paterno’s 46 years as head coach, it also doesn’t really suggest an honorable way out for Paterno, up to and including resignation. That Penn State’s cynical non-response to the charges against the DC-emeritus they’d given the run of the campus resembles nothing so much as the Catholic Church’s similarly shameful handling of similar crimes suggests a whole host of harrowing mis-priorities on the school’s part. It is all very, very bad, for everyone, and very difficult to talk about.
But, for better or worse, we’ll get to all that. There’s no suggestion in the indictment that the charges from 1999 had anything to do with Sandusky not being retained, although of course that’s the sort of story that’s supposed to carry a journalist’s byline, not a prosecutor’s. Eventually it might, but thus far the coverage has been split between recapitulation and dim, dunderheaded Whitlockian all-they-care-about-is-the-money bombast. The discovering of just how many craven and manifestly bad decisions were made by brand-minded administrators in hopes that this story would never break recalls the nauseous revelation, during the end of the Bush years, that the financial industry was built on artifice and graft and the horrific realization that everything it had touched was infected and terribly contagious. That college football itself has become too big to fail is not a new realization to anyone who has followed the sport’s consolidation into macro-conferences and boutique TV networks; that the response to it seems most likely to be vague righteousness and Santelli-style blame-shifting is disappointing, but also perhaps the most we could expect. The college football discourse was never designed to handle something this serious, and is as unprepared for it as the business discourse was for its switch from facile boosterism and clammy wealth-humping to post-crash forensics.
This isn’t the sort of thing anyone wants to talk or think or write about, but even beyond that there is a palpable wish to get back to what has already been proven to work. Soon enough, there will be some passive-positive debate-style discussion of when and whether Paterno will leave Penn State and who will replace him. Further down the line there will be assessments of how the fallout from “the scandal” – the same word used to describe Ohio State players swapping jerseys for tattoos is already being used to describe the horrors Sandusky is alleged to have forced upon needy kids for a decade and a half – will impact Penn State’s program. And finally there will just be what there always is: dense, dead-serious short-horizon noise about next Saturday and the Saturday after that.
This is the business of that particular machine, but it’s a pretty stupid and unilluminating business even in the best of circumstances. Here and now, in what looks a lot like the worst of circumstances, to talk that usual College GameDay shit would be tasteless-unto-pathetic. It would look like a willful, desperate retreat to the usual trivial questions in the face of larger and more discomfiting ones about responsibility and priorities and community values and the perversions and abdications of all three that follow from prizing the survival and success of powerful institutions like big-time football programs over people like the Sandusky case’s Victim 1, Victim 2, Victim 3 et al. To talk about all that now would look like a willful desperate retreat from those painful questions because it would in fact be a willful desperate retreat from them. And it will still be that, when we at last (but soon) get around to it. All that small, silly talk will be just as tasteless and point-missing when it somehow becomes appropriate again, when we go back to tutting at/leering over all those big-small scandals concerning sociopathic tight ends and creepo boosters. It will just be harder to notice how ugly it is, then, because the noise we’ll hear will sound only like what it is: the same blinkered experts talking college football as usual.