California Literary Review

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

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September 30th, 2012 at 11:30 am

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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.

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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.

  • Feltre

    You need to read Joe Paterno’s address to the Board of Trustees after Penn State won its first national championship in 1982. 5% of it was about football, the rest focused on the need for academic excellence. It is a Penn State culture, not a football culture. Success with honor is a year-round, lifetime culture.

    Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “I remember one time I handed the
    ball off and ran my fake out and Mauti just came up and screamed ‘Man, I could
    have lit you up right there.’ I said, ‘I appreciate that you didn’t.’ The chance
    for dirty play was there but they’re not dirty players. They flat-out beat us
    today.” (from IlliniHQ.com) And it is not just on the field that we don’t play dirty. Read the Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship analysis of the Freeh report. The NCAA played dirty. Beckman played dirty. I cannot believe I have to say that.

  • http://twitter.com/jembloomfield Jem Bloomfield

    Thanks for your comment, and for the reading suggestions. By arguing that the ethos of Penn State is linked to how we should understand their performance on the football field, you have proved my point. Either the game is simply the game, with no ethical element, in which case there should not have been sanctions. Or there is (as you have suggested) an ethical element, in which case Beckman was perfectly within his rights to act upon the sanctions. There is a human tragedy behind all this which makes your outrage seem strangely misdirected.

  • Feltre

    For the sanctions to be justified you would need to demonstrate that Paterno covered up child rape since 1998. There is simply no proof that is the case. As to Beckman, are you equating a right to act with the ethics of such action? If a team with a 28 point lead has a first and goal on the 5 with 40 seconds left in the game, they have a right to attempt to score, but the ethical thing to do is to take a knee. The team that is scored on in that situation has every reason to hold it against the opposing coach, even if he was within his rights.

    Don’t think for a minute that Sandusky’s actions don’t outrage me. Those actions don’t justify a further injustice and that does not preclude me from feeling outrage at the further injustice. And what did the sanctions do anyway? Does anyone really believe that the possibility of sanctions against the university would have any deterrent effect on a person who would be risking incarceration for the same act? All the sanctions did was create more victims and make some pompous individuals at the NCAA feel good about themselves.

    Finally, I appreciate that you are making your arguments without the vitriol that has marked most of the postings about Penn State over the last year.

  • http://twitter.com/jembloomfield Jem Bloomfield

    Thank you for your comment. I do not intend taking any instructions about “honour”, “academic excellence” or the distinctions between rights and ethics from you whilst you insist that Penn State’s internal culture is such a wonderful thing that no-one should dare criticise it.
    You continue to want to have it both ways – denying that there is anything wrong with the culture which permitted the events at Penn State to continue as long as they did, whilst demanding pity for the players who have to live with the sanctions. Either we ignore the entire question of Penn State football culture (since I have no desire to cast slurs at any other part of the university), and simply read the game entirely fenced off from the wider context. In which case the sanctions would indeed be unfair, and Sandusky’s series of crimes was an aberration which managed to go entirely unnoticed in a crowded atmosphere for years and years through an astonishing series of coincidences.
    Or we take into account the idea of institutional culture, which you are so keen to educate me upon. In which case, I don’t want to hear any bleating about the wonder, virtue and “honour” which flow from Penn State’s magnificent culture. Because that culture contained something appalling for many years, and simple shame and self-awareness should prevent claiming that Penn State are the victims. I am not drawing parallels between the rights and the ethics of an action, I am repeating the words “taken advantage of” in disgust.

  • Feltre

    I was premature in congratulating your for making non-emotional arguments and you didn’t answer my questions but continued to espouse your unsupported arguments. Not what I would expect from a PhD. Your argument hinges on your supposition that our culture was the cause of a child’s suffering but you offer no proof of that (because there isn’t any). In fact, in 1998 the university police reported an incident of Sandusky showering with a boy to borough police who referred it to the DA. Two government agency child abuse experts concluded that it was just a shower and not pedophilia. The DA declined to prosecute and Second Mile was aware of the allegation. All external to the university! How is our culture responsible for that? How does the NCAA justify dating sanctions to 1998? If you rise above your cloud of self-righteous disgust long enough to look at the facts you might begin to see the truth. Apply some of those PhD research skills. Not many people have taken the time to do that since this thing came out and a lot of innocent people have suffered for that.

  • Joey

    People have been unable to speak truth to power in society since the dawn of man and this is no different. One man at PSU had more power,or more perceived power than the others – then the men with less power (5) were scared of possible retribution if they spoke the truth. Football had nothing to do with it. Money, power, and success combined with fear, cowardice, and lack of character did. Therefore, football was not the inherent problem- power or perceived power in our society along with cowardice was. Following that logic, by contributing to the power of any man in our society, we are helping to create, foster, and maintain possible criminal behavior. Perhaps there is now a massive cover-up going on at Apple Headquarters – by religiously buying Iphones aren’t you partially responsible? Essentially this is what your implying. This is why the the Penn State community,, including the three people that were jurors on the Sandusky jury, are sick of the assertions they are partially responsible. They are not responsible. I’m not responsible. Michael Mauti is not responsible. Get over it. Some people in society are cowards and some are bad men..

    In regards to the PSU football team, I agreed with all of the sanctions accept allowing the players to be recruited by other D-1 schools.This was only done by the NCAA to punish and humiliate the current football team. After 60% of their entire team leaves and they lose to Ohio Sate four years in a row by a combined score of 200-0 will they have finally learned their lesson? The kids had nothing to do with it and they shouldn’t be humiliated on national TV because it. That is why Michael Mauti was pissed.

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