By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) It’s 2017, which means people getting used to no longer writing 2016 on their checks, to paraphrase the annual joke. But who still writes checks anyway?
The old, the out of touch, the stubbornly refusing to adapt to changing times. Probably the kind of people who would use a television job to to put their feet in their mouths over scandals involving sports, very serious crimes and the larger issues to which those intersections speak.
Monday was full of college football, some of it very entertaining — USC’s last-second victory over Penn State was a crazy game — and the rest … well, at least any football is better than no football? What greatly spoiled the good and bad of the big New Year’s bowls, though, was broadcasters in two separate games speaking up on issues they clearly are too tone deaf on right now to engage in.
In that wild Rose Bowl shootout, ESPN’s Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit took time during a lull in the action to acknowledge the elephant in the room of the lingering effects of the Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno heinous child rape scandal in Happy Valley. Unfortunately the broadcast leaned toward redemption narrative that is so important to avoid when it comes to sports and criminal behavior, particularly arguably the worst series of events and coverups in sports history. This is where Herbstreit went with it:
Not once during his and Fowler’s waxing on how amazing it is that in America a sports team and “tradition” can come back from scandal in a country that treats sports as religion that forgives unconditionally (so long as the on-field/ice/court product is solid) did either broadcaster mention Paterno or his role in obscuring the child rape and hushing. At no point while admiring how football once again won over real world problems were the victims of child sexual abuse given proper acknowledgment in the conversation. Ignoring those things is what allows a Paterno to still have cultish god status and victims to be continually an afterthought if remembered at all.
This came after ESPN made their usual pathos-grab pregame feature piece framed as Penn State overcoming adversity to again play a January football game. Football doesn’t make it better; it fosters these horrendous situations, and treating the poison as the antidote is beyond problematic.
But we weren’t finished with really bad football-as-redemption narratives for the evening. The Sugar Bowl featured Auburn against Oklahoma, the latter featuring running back Joe Mixon, he who broke a woman’s face with his fist in public in 2014. Brent Musburger had some thoughts on the man who we all watched break a woman’s face on camera who was given the benefit of still playing college football.
That’s a really bad way to approach the Mixon situation. I shouldn’t have to explain why, but taking a situation of violence against a woman by an athlete to emphasize that “the young man is doing fine” and “Let’s hope” he gets to the NFL to make millions is missing what’s important by a wide margin. That’s one of the clearest examples I can recall of a culture that puts athletes and celebrities above victims of violence. The blowback on social media eventually reached Musburger, who was given an opportunity to clarify his thoughts.
And, woo boy, did he ever.
So rather than try a mea culpa or even hamfistedly rephrase, Musburger scolded the viewer who would dare criticize his ignorant choice of words that he then doubled down on with a vengeance. At no point in either spell of old man mouth-farting did Musburger mention Amelia Molitor, the woman whose face was broken by Mixon’s fist. There was a passing mention at the situation becoming something teachable, but Mixon and the future that football privileges him is far more important to Musburger and the hordes of fans and generally vile men’s rights sympathizers who demand that concern for perpetrators of violence be at the forefront of our minds and almost never the victims of it.
A reminder that since the punching incident and besides still playing football at Oklahoma, Mixon was suspended a game during this season for tearing up a parking ticket and allegedly throwing it at a female attendant. During the Sugar Bowl, Auburn fans chanted “He hits women,” and Mixon and teammates responded by gesturing for those fans to do it louder.
But let’s hope he makes it to the NFL, Brent.
I don’t underestimate how difficult broadcasting a sporting event is. Compound that with that event being shadowed with a scandal involving that event’s personnel and probably not being trained in how to approach such a topic, I won’t just assume broadcasters need to be perfect. Tim Brando defended Musburger afterward (and blocked me on Twitter for criticizing his defense):
Yes, the words of Musburger and Herbstreit aren’t canned, “embrace debate” stuff. But as professionals in 2017, they and all broadcasters have a responsibility to educate and train themselves on real world plagues like violence against women and children and how those intersect with sports. Even more so, they need to know how sports problematically works against solving those problems and isn’t to be put on a pedestal above those problems. I defer to Jessica Luther, who has written a book on rape and college football and devotes admirable energy to speaking and writing on sports’ issues with violence:
So what’s an uncomfortable broadcaster to do? Maybe acknowledge the uncomfortableness. Put it out there. Talk about how you certainly don’t condone violence, as Herbstreit and Musburger certainly don’t, but also discuss how issues of violence are bigger than football. Much of the reason this stuff doesn’t get talked about is because we avoid what’s uncomfortable.
More importantly, mention victims. Make them important. Don’t allow real people who have suffered violence at the hands of people involved in precious sports to be secondary or even forgotten, as happened Monday.
If you can take time between plays to clap football on the back, you can take time to criticize the way it handles criminal situations and toxic masculinity. Stop treating sports as feel-good solution when sports were what caused the feel-bad. Failure to verbalize all that properly contributes to jock privilege, which is very real. And if you’re about to act on your reflex that says such stuff is all wussification of blah blah, you’re part of the problem. Shut up until you choose to be better.
It’s fine to talk about the bad actions as opportunities for learning. Musburger almost got there if not drowned out by his own anger at critics. Yes, Penn State can grow from this — but football wins aren’t growth. Yes, Mixon can be a redeemable story — but giving a forced apology long after he broke a woman’s face just so that he could justify being back on a roster isn’t that.
Being able to talk about the ickiness of the sport you cover should be required, not refreshing. Particularly for the announcer I’ve always loved for alluding to point spreads in games in which the players make nothing from our gambling and who famously did a product placement in a game call in which player got none of the chip company’s millions paid to sponsor the game.
We talk about the post-Ray Rice era, but Rice is literally working for positive change by now speaking out against domestic violence and vowing to be an example for others. He’s confronting a difficult issue that will follow him for the rest of his life, and while he’d like to play in the NFL again, he’s not asking that we “hope” he makes it there. If Rice can speak appropriately about himself and his awful violent choice, it’s not asking too much for broadcasters to start conditioning themselves to do so about difficult social stuff.
A football program that even despite NCAA sanctions has had access to wealth and talent that’s the envy of many college programs while still refusing to completely divorce itself of the Paterno culture that got the program on the brink of the figurative death penalty in the first place isn’t special. Mixon crying and apologizing and egging on fans to chant about his violence isn’t hopeful, and his potential lucrative career as a “second chance” that no non-athlete would get isn’t worth rooting for. It’s all very much still a product of football. And continued ignorance gets perpetuated when the most important voices — the national TV broadcasters — contribute to it willfully.
It’s 2017, and it’s time to stop sticking up for the old, the out of touch and the stubborn. Especially when they’re broadcasters who stick up for the problematic parts of sports.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.