By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) The 2016 Penn State Nittany Lions football team is impressive. This weekend it will play in the Big Ten championship game, and it’s ranked No. 8 in the country in both the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll, seventh in the most recent College Football Playoffs rankings.
Beware, though, of any discussion of Penn State as a feel-good story.
If you’re a Nittany Lion fan who has been looking for anything to allow yourself to get lost in sports success recently, this team probably does that, and you the rational PSU fan deserves such. To momentarily forget the scandal involving the serial child rape by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for years under the professional inaction by longtime coach Joe Paterno and instead just enjoy football — I get that. Your penance shouldn’t involve eternal misery.
But the story of Penn State football isn’t one of redemption. It’s not about healing or returning to normalcy. The idea of maintaining what’s supposedly normal was what fostered the Sandusky problem in the first place.
Current coach James Franklin and his staff and players should be denied nothing for what they’ve accomplished so far this season. They’ve worked tremendously hard at their jobs, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to do so under the very dark, very recent shadow of arguably the worst story in American sports history. The program hasn’t had a losing season since Paterno left (credit goes too to Franklin’s predecessor, Bill O’Brien), and Franklin has managed to build a viable contender despite still feeling effects of NCAA sanctions placed on on the team that crippled recruiting. To be where Penn State football is today is remarkable.
And while the current coaches and players must in their work divorce themselves of the spectres of Paterno and Sandusky as anyone at any job must when taking over from previous regime, let alone such an infamous one, Penn State is unique in that there is no amount of football good that can ever negate or move on from the horrible enabled by football.
Mostly an attempt to “move onward” or let the past be past is insulting to victims of sexual assault everywhere who live in a constant recurring horror of not just what happened to them but that the world at large wants to not be bothered with it. No worse does the willful ignorance occur than in major college sports.
A topic like sexual assault of children is a difficult one, and we recoil reflexively from including it in our sports consumption. We look to frame the discussion — often unconsciously — in a way that saves the face of the sports we enjoy and, by transitive property, our own faces. We love when sports recalibrates to a net positive despite scandal. So a situation like Penn State’s success this season is ripe for a redemption narrative. Don’t buy or sell that, please.
While Franklin and the rest of the the team have nothing to do with the recent past, they’re by choice tied to it, as all future coaches and players in Happy Valley will be. They deserve no blame or scorn — somebody has to play football there, and someone has to coach it, and the product can be great. But winning despite being hamstrung by the constantly hypocritical and tone-deaf NCAA and learning to tune out the Sandusky/Paterno talk doesn’t feel good to an outside objective observer. If anything, it’s just football again continuing to be the cockroach surviving all nuclear fallouts.
And even if there are those who would like to make past prologue, it continues to be present. On Friday, Penn State agreed to pay $2.4 million in fines levied by the U.S. Department of Education regarding violations of the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to disclose crimes reported on or near their campuses and warn students about potential threats. That amount is almost seven times the previous highest fine imposed on a school, $357,500, settled to $350,000 by Eastern Michigan University in 2008.
“We have accepted the fines and will continue to focus on our ongoing Clery compliance,” the university said in a statement. “It is Penn State’s goal to not only meet the standards articulated by the Department of Education, as we believe we currently do, but to set a new standard for Clery compliance in higher education.”
Then there are those irrational members of the Nittany Lion pride who continue to embarrass themselves and ensure for the decent fans out there that us outsiders will always have reason to refuse to allow Penn State to return to “normal.” Take walking head injury Franco Harris, who last week found a microphone to continue to tilt at windmills. Harris joined Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan to let everyone know he’s still on his OJ-real-killers tour of the funhouse of cognitive dissonance regarding Paterno.
“I started out in the beginning where we want to find the truth and along this path, we have found a lot of information,” Harris said. “And we’re going to support and we’re going to fight for our coach. We’re tired of all the lies and all the accusations and it’s time to just have some frank discussion about this sort of stuff.”
Harris also took issue with Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy’s recent comments about Paterno that included:
“Any person or institution, Joe Paterno included, that turns away from or fails to act against sexual assault is a ‘dirtbag.’
Imagine your son, nephew, cousin or young male person in your life goes away to football camp or has a trusted relationship with a coach, but their vulnerability is taken advantage of and their trust violated in an act of sexual assault. Years later, a story breaks and sheds light on a decades-long pattern of sexual abuse. And then it becomes known that one of the most powerful figures in that football program knew of it at various points but failed to act diligently. In broad strokes, that’s how I understand the case of Penn State, Jerry Sandusky and Paterno.”
Then a bunch of former Penn State players who don’t know when to shut up and take righteous condemnation took issue with Levy in the ultimate mark of cogency, a stern letter.
Harris added: “I really don’t know (Levy) and I guess I’m trying to understand him because he, from what I read, it seems like he is trying to do a lot good things, and it looked like his character is OK. And then he turns around without any knowledge of the situation and makes a statement like that and so that was pretty disturbing. (He) went to Wisconsin, I’m thinking that he has to be a pretty smart guy, but also I’m thinking he’s ignorant. And he’s definitely on the situation on Joe Paterno.”
There are too many people who would rather make this about themselves or a disgraced coach or just plain football. That disqualifies it as a redemption story, because you don’t get redeemed when you weren’t the victim and when many continue to disregard the actual victims or consider them secondary to all this.
As the X’s and O’s of Penn State return to the national conversation, know that the accolades of this football team are deserved and commendable. Faced with sanctions that still affect scholarships today, Penn State players, coaches and fans should be proud of where the team is at today.
But also be sure to resist attempts to frame the 2016 success as football people being redeemed. Keep the football purely about football. Then remember what can’t ever be forgotten.
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.