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Game of the Week: Penn State vs Illinois — The View from England

Penn State 35 — Illinois 7

“We never forgot about what happened in the summer”. It’s difficult to approach Penn State’s football games this season with an unbiased attitude. Luckily the team seems keen to make sure we don’t have to bother. That line is from Michael Mauti, who told a reporter after the game that “we had that in the back of our minds and that kept us going.” If you’re confused about how the team could have been sustained by the memory of the discovery of years of abuse which had taken place within the Penn State football program, I don’t blame you. In fact Mauti was referring to the fact that Tim Beckman, the coach of the Fighting Illini, had been seen on Penn State’s campus over the summer, attempting to recruit players who had been rendered more mobile by the sanctions laid on Penn State. Apparently that made it “sweet” to be able to play Illinois early in the season, and get revenge for Beckman’s crimes.

Except, of course, that trying to recruit football players isn’t a crime. “Poach” is a term being used to describe these discussions during the sanctions. Whether or not that’s reasonable depends on your attitude to the sanctions. One ESPN announcer described Beckman’s activities as “legal, but deemed unethical by a lot of people in college football”, and another called it “trying to take advantage of the situation…definitely pushed the boundaries of that etiquette.” In other words, many of those who sympathise with Penn State aren’t asking for the slate to be wiped clean, and everything which took place off the field to be ignored in favour of a rigorous evaluation of play during the game. No, they want our sympathy for Penn State. They want us to see this team as victims, whom someone tried to “take advantage of”.

This being the case, I’m going to compress my recap of the actual game into this next paragraph, so we can oblige Penn State by considering their performance within the wider context of the year’s events. So here goes. Four one-yard touchdown runs (including two sneaks by QB Matt McGloin) for Penn State was pretty impressive, if not particularly elegant. McGloin seemed in charge of his offense, with a couple of stylish play action passes. OK, he lifted his knee too early, triggering an early snap from the confused centre, which duly got him sacked, but I shouldn’t imagine that’s bothering him too much given the scoreline. Illinois seemed unable to convert in the red zone, though when they scored they did so in style. Jake Ferguson made a 22 yard reception, making vital yards after the catch. Then Scheelhaase threw him a backward pass, which he recocked and lobbed downfield into the hands of Spencer Harris for the TD. Just terrific (yes, I am overly impressed by this stuff.) Mauti himself played splendidly, intercepting twice and making a 99 yard run off one of them.

Right, that’s over with. Attempting to read any sporting event with a totally neutral attitude isn’t possible. If it was, we would hardly ever bother watching sport. No-one turns up to support their team, and goes away from a loss thinking “Well, goodness me, perhaps I was mistaken in thinking Les Bleus are the best team who play this game. Recognising my mistake, I shall transfer my allegiance to the Barbarians, who today clearly demonstrated that they are worthier of my attention.” We bring our own baggage to every game, whether that’s a preference for the college we attended, a liking for over-flashy passing stunts, or just the fact that we know the QB has suddenly been promoted to first-string in the manner of the a plucky underdog and the film Any Given Sunday.

There is an argument to be made that we should try to banish any knowledge of what one particular member of a football program did, when he isn’t on-field, isn’t part of the organization and can have no relation to the outcome of this game. It’s harder, but perhaps also possible, to justify a tablua rasa for the length of the game now that Joe Paterno is no longer at Penn State. To do this, we would have to assume that Sandusky’s crimes took place in a near-total vacuum. They were simply the appalling aberration of one man, who was covered up for by another man. In this light, the abuse which happened at Penn State could have happened in any organization: the Post Office, the particle physics department of another university, the youth organizations of either political party. Viewed from this angle, it would look like collective punishment to hold the current football program liable for the crimes committed in the past. The sanctions might be grudgingly accepted, but it would indeed be bad “etiquette” for Beckman to try to recruit Penn State players. In fact, if this was the case, there would be no case for sanctions at all, unless you considered sacking those responsible as sanctions. It would assume that on-field play and off-field organization had no connection whatsoever, that the ethos of Penn State football had no connection to winning games or indeed playing them.

But there is no such distinction made either by spectators or players. College football is only partly about the technicalities of points and yardage: if it were it would have no place in our higher education system (and do feel free to argue that one in the comments, if you’d like.) It is wrapped up in a particular culture of masculinity which demands admiration for physical power, intense tribalism and the elevation of a few people as symbols of an entire university – even an entire state. At its worst, it can seem to glorify the ability to inflict violence on those who are weaker, and the absolute authority of older men over younger men’s bodies. Very little – I won’t say nothing, but very little – that I’ve heard coming out of Penn State in the last year seems to dispute that, from the students rioting at the news of Paterno’s sacking, to Mauti’s comments to the press. I’m going to have to agree with Amanda Marcotte here (not always a popular move where college sports are concerned, I’m aware) and suggest that students who choose1 to riot at that kind of news look like they’re asking for rape to be considered differently when sports are involved.

Sanctions are appropriate because there is a potential worry that the culture of Penn State football may be toxic in some sense. In other words, that the way the game is regarded, coached and played at a particular institution may have indirectly contributed to the years which elapsed before the abuse was stopped. If that worry wasn’t there when Sandusky’s case first came to light, it certainly is given the hordes of people who have hurried to defend Paterno in the meantime. And it should be even more strongly present now that some players and some in the media are attempting to frame Penn State football team as the victims here, describing the sanctions as an unfair technicality. They are not the victims. They were not “tak[en] advantage of”. I cannot believe I have to say that.


1And this was a choice – I haven’t seen anyone arguing that these comfortable students at a wealthy college were somehow expressing fury or alienation at their place in society.

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