That Rotting Smell is College Sports

I’m a little disappointed that Ross Douthat, a sophisticated moralist, could look at the monstrous fiasco at Penn State and think that the compelling independent variable in all this is Joe Paterno. Douthat compares Paterno to Father Darío Castrillón Hoyos, the Colombian priest who went from humble service to the poor of Medellin to flakking for pedophile priests in Rome. You can read what Ross says about Father Castrillón, but I just want to ask: Why should we start out from the assumption that Joe Paterno and his program are exceptional in their dishonesty, their bland bureaucratic evasions of basic moral responsibilities?

What happened around the Sandusky allegations, after all, is what big-time athletic programs do – they lie; they cover up; they fudge; they condone cheating; the require cheating; they scapegoat to avoid accountability; they force crude double standards of assessment and behavior on their universities (which put up little fight); they claim flagrant zones of exemption in admissions requirements, which they often get their universities to basically waive altogether; they minimize misbehavior, often criminal, when they cannot describe it out of existence; they secure their talent in a mortifying pageant of “recruiting” in which grown men, like clumsy Casanovas, wheedle and lie to high school juniors via endless text messages; and, while these men make piles of money from their recruits, the recruits don’t actually get what you’d call “paid,” because they’re amateurs, or as their coaches sometimes say, into cameras, for national audiences, with straight faces, “student-athletes” (that the people on the receiving end of these reassurances don’t burst out in derisive laughter is grist for another rant about the funny idea of sports journalism).

Actually, this isn’t just what they do. It’s who they are. It’s how they exist, at all. The compost smell from this steaming pile of sordid practices is their smell. That smell is their steaming-compost essence. It might have been an interesting hypothetical, a month ago, even for someone with as jaded a view of college sports as I possess, whether a program defined by such a compost smell would cover up something as heinous as a coach raping boys in its own showers, thus freeing him to rape boys hand-picked from his foundation-for-boys for as long as he cared to. It’s not a hypothetical anymore. Now we know the answer.

So, when people wonder what it was about Joe Paterno, personally, that made this disaster possible, I can only shake my head and ask: Where’s your materialism, people? Joe Paterno was the nice, avuncular, highly successful, stunningly old boss of such an organization. He did what his organization wanted him to do. Proof of this is that, given the chance, his organization – from the “graduate assistant” (let’s linger over this exquisite term for just a moment: graduate assistant; it almost sounds as if his function as an “assistant” is tied in some way to his academic standing as a “graduate,” that is, a graduate in some subject in the learning of which he is now “assisting” other aspirants to this august status as a “graduate”) to his nominal superiors in the Penn State athletic department and university administration – did the exact same thing he did. They did what the organization wanted them to do.

Surely these men are not as great as Joe Paterno, and thus subject to the same great-man blindnesses that brought him low, and yet they did just as he did. They fudged, they covered up, they did the minimum necessary so as to avoid bringing a powerful man to account, they redescribed the rape of a 10-year-old boy as “horsing around in the showers,” and like college coaches everywhere when they talk to recruits and reporters about what their programs are really about, and like administrators when they describe these programs as having a legitimate or even comprehensible place in their universities, they lied. What happened at Penn State was the scheme of big-money college sports working as it was designed to work. The act of looking away, repeated by so many in State College, is the perfect emblem for the cognitive politics of the NCAA. It should be on their flag.

Focusing on Joe Paterno, and puzzling how this could happen in idyllic State College, Pennsylvania, or, conversely, snarking about the unique evil that must lurk below the surface in State College, Pennsylvania (I mean, the students rioted for their coach; students wouldn’t have done that anywhere else) are ways for everyone to advance the state of cognitive dissonance that made this disaster possible in the first place.

Let me ask a sobering question: How do we know this isn’t happening at other big-time programs, or things just as bad, or worse, or almost as bad? Just for the most easily imagined category of malefaction: How many coeds do you think have been raped by athletes over the years, at the countries’ other athletic powerhouses, and then shamed by administrators into covering it up, or just stonewalled and ignored by campus officials, or just convinced by such prospects to shut up on their own, preemptively? What number do you think that is? Or does that just happen at Penn State, because of Joe Paterno’s unique blindness as a great man? Why shouldn’t the conceit of Joe-Pa’s integrity make us wonder how much worse it is in those many college towns where the king of the dung-heap is more of a manifest scumbag? Jerry Sandusky just happened to get caught, or caught up with, thirteen years after the first sick-making suspicions arose. Clearly, these are people with stronger stomachs than you and I have. You might say they have “iron stomachs.” They can, after all, stand their own smells. So perhaps we should start widening our imaginations, to ponder how many other disgusting things they can stand downwind of, and for how long.