Let Penn State play football, but without its fans (essay)
Let Penn State Play, in Silence
In the spring of 2009 the Italian football (soccer) club Juventus – as wealthy and powerful a club as exists in Europe – was forced to play a game with no fans in attendance because the crowd at a game had been racially abusive to another team’s player.
During the 2011-2012 Dutch soccer season, AFC Ajax – one of the two dominant clubs in that nation’s athletic scene – played a match in an empty stadium after a fan ran onto the field and attacked a visiting team player.
This spring, the Italian top-level football club Genoa was required to play its final two home games “behind closed doors” because of crowd violence at a previous match.
Latest Penn State Developments
With NCAA poised to announce
penalties against the university
Monday, campus officials take
down Joe Paterno's statue outside
the football stadium.
All around the world, the penalty for toxic sport culture is the same: teams, rich teams, poor teams, powerful teams, unknown teams, are required to play games in silent, empty stadia, often without television as a local option, denied income and in-house support, while the fans hopefully learn – the hard way – that there are things more important than athletics.
Now, we, in American higher education, have a good reason to learn from the planet we share but hardly ever actually interact with as equals. When the culture of sport is the issue, attack the culture of the sport by cutting off its oxygen supply: remove the fans from the scene of their crimes.
There is no doubt that the “culture of reverence” (the words of the Freeh report) for Penn State football created the conditions in which the cover up of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes could not only occur, but go on for 14 years. There is no doubt that the culture of football worship – and Joe Paterno worship – in State College, Pa., allowed decades of crimes to occur in silence: the sexual harassment and discrimination by the university’s former women’s basketball coach Rene Portland for one, the many reported but unprosecuted crimes by Nittany Lions football players from 2002 to 2008 exposed by ESPN for another.
And there is little doubt that it is a culture unchallenged at Pennsylvania State University, which, since the scandal broke eight months ago, has put no sanctions on its football program, has crowed about continued donations, has sent the team off to a bowl game, and has, frighteningly, suggested as its one action, that the showers and locker room at the Lasch Football Building be renovated lest Penn State football players "feel uncomfortable."
Allie Grasgreen’s article last week on Inside Higher Ed, Must Penn State Cleanse?, dealt with the need for a “grand gesture,” such as shutting down the football program for one or more seasons. “I can’t see any other action that shows that great intersection of wanting to do better -- introspection, remorse, pain, leadership, humanity, empathy -- in its real sense,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport and Society program. “If they’re hoping for football to return to prominence, wouldn’t they want it also under a cleansed brand?”
“The board has an imperative to take strong, demonstrable action to both rein in and possibly even punish the football program itself, as it would other renegade programs within the institution,” the article quote former University of Michigan president James J. Duderstadt as writing. But Grasgreen also pointed out the many “too big to fail” excuses for why Penn State football must march on, almost all of which are related to the financial consequences of broken contracts or the perception that innocent athletes are being punished.
So, if march on the Nittany Lions must, let them march on in silence behind the padlocked gates of Beaver Stadium for the next four years, or long enough to break, conclusively, that culture of reverence. Let there be no “Paternovilles” (by any name), let there be no more embarrassing moments of faux piety as we witnessed during the Nebraska-Penn State game last autumn. Allow the players to play, insist that Penn State pay its contractual commitments, allow the Big Ten to have its right number of games televised everywhere but the State of Pennsylvania, but send an unmistakable message that Penn State exists for some reason other than to provide Saturday afternoon entertainment eight days a year.
Throughout my watch of Penn State since the Sandusky arrest I have been privileged to be in communication with a very important member of the Penn State community, Matt Bodenschatz, a “non-traditional” student who immediately began challenging his university’s response to the scandal in November of last year. “I have something unpopular to say,” Bodenschatz wrote bravely on November 13, “I see everywhere -- in your editorials on your social media pages, in your subversively-written chalk messages printed all over campus -- your desperate insistence that ‘We are still Penn State.’ And each of these that I come upon creates in me a feeling of isolating sadness and emptiness. It reinforces in me what I have long felt – that the realities of victims and the realities of observers are worlds apart.”
Then he adds, “Because my community -- the survivor community, the victim community -- doesn’t get to boast of being unchanged.”
Since that day I have watched Bodenschatz work – through his group Voices4Victims– to educate his peers, his classmates, his community, his university, even his alumni association on the horrific symbolism of Penn State “moving on,” “getting back to normal.”
For if Penn State is allowed to casually return to “normal” this September, its Saturdays filled with crowds tailgating and cheering, the band playing, the party atmosphere, neither Bodenschatz nor any other victim within the Penn State community gets a true chance to heal. “It’s easy to get over this,” we’ll be saying. “See, a few months and it’s all in the past.” To allow that to happen would be a violation of all that it truly means to be an educational institution.
In a comment on Grasgreen’s article, Sanford Thatcher, the distinguished former director of the Penn State University Press, insists that, “There was no attempt by anyone in athletics to pull its programs away from "core values" of the university and embrace a "commercial culture" instead.” And he asks, incredibly, “Exactly what "university mission" was abandoned in favor of football?”
It is for Mr. Thatcher, and the students of Penn State, that this teachable moment must be embraced. We must teach all that the mission of any university, the mission of any educational institution, the mission of any educated person, includes the obligation to serve and protect society – especially society’s most vulnerable. That our mission includes the obligation to behave honestly and ethically, and that it includes an obligation to demonstrate, and to teach, humane and appropriate behavior.
The teaching of this cannot take place in the course of business as usual in State College. That gap Bodenschatz speaks of, between the realities of the victims and the realities of the observers, is clearly too vast to be bridged five days a week if on day six we argue, as loudly as possible, the opposite.
We can’t shut down Penn State football? Fine. Let them play. But let them play in silence while the business of education goes on.
Ira Socol is a research and teaching assistant at Michigan State University.