Sports, by design, are supposed to provide us with a convenient escape from the travails, trials, tribulations and tragedies of everyday life. Sports should allow us to focus on home runs, touchdowns, hat tricks and slam dunks, rather than on illness, unemployment, overdue bills and foreclosed homes.
However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that sports and reality are being blurred in ways that render sports useless as an escape valve. Two incidents that occurred over the same weekend clearly illustrate this point.
First, Jerry Sandusky, the longtime assistant coach and one-time heir apparent to legendary Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno, was arrested on 40 abuse charges, including 21 felonies, according to USA Today. Sandusky is charged with abusing eight boys between 1994 and 2009, with some incidents alleged to have taken place in a Penn State athletics building. Furthermore, 20 of the charges against Sandusky are from the period 1995 to 1998, while he was still Paterno’s defensive coordinator. Having served on Paterno’s staff for 32 years and been the architect of the defensive schemes that led to two national titles in the 1980s, Sandusky retired at the end of the 1999 season.
These shocking allegations occurred at a time when Joe Paterno had just collected his 409th victory, which eclipsed the all-time mark for wins in NCAA Division I history. Suddenly Paterno’s win total and reputation for running a clean program were almost irrelevant, hurled into the background in the wake of the allegations against Sandusky. There have been other recent football scandals, such as Ohio State players exchanging memorabilia for tattoos, which helped to bring down their head coach Jim Tressel, and Miami and USC players bringing trouble to their respective programs by accepting “rewards” and illicit benefits from boosters. But these pale beside the allegations leveled at Sandusky.
Penn State Athletics Director Tim Curley has taken administrative leave and Senior Vice President Gary Schultz has resigned. Both men face charges that they perjured themselves before a grand jury and failed to notify either law enforcement or child protection officers of the child sexual abuse allegations brought to them about Sandusky.
This episode could not remain far from Paterno’s door. Paterno is such an icon and his team is so important emotionally to legions of fans, particularly those in Pennsylvania, that few would have believed anything could occur to irreparably harm his reputation or tarnish his program.
The immediate question was: What did Paterno know and when did he know it? He released a statement on Nov. 6 which acknowledged that one incident of improper conduct had been reported to him by a graduate assistant in 2002 and that he had passed the information on to his superiors. But that incident has been revealed by court documents as the possible child molestation of a ten-year-old boy. Did Paterno therefore have a duty to make sure the matter was reported to law enforcement authorities? On Nov. 9 Paterno offered to resign at the end of the 2011 season, but the Board of Trustees at Penn State fired him on the same day, not allowing him a dignified exit. A cold business decision and concern for the Penn State brand took precedence over Paterno’s 46 years as a head coach and asset to the university, and over 60 years of loyal service Paterno had given to the university.
Sports are supposed to take our minds off things like the Catholic priest child sex abuse scandal that was handled so sanctimoniously by the Church. But now, with one of the most storied programs in college football history rocked by a similar scandal, all we are reminded of is that sports is a reflection of our society and not an escape mechanism from our troubles.
The second incident involved Steve Williams, the longtime caddy of golfer Tiger Woods. Williams had caddied for Woods for over ten years, during which time Tiger won 13 of his 14 major championships. When Woods decided to make a change and dismissed Williams in the summer of 2011, Williams’ enmity toward Woods surfaced. Williams became Adam Scott’s caddy, and when Scott won the prestigious World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational, Williams gloated and, with exaggerated self-importance, acted as if he were the golfer who had won the tournament instead of Scott.
However, none of that prepared anyone for what happened weeks later at a banquet in Shanghai where the HSBC Champions tournament was taking place. Taking the dais and explaining his boastfulness following Scott’s earlier victory, Williams remarked about Woods, “It was my aim to shove it right up that black arse-“, according to the Huffington Post.
The PGA has a long history of racial discrimination, from an early Caucasians-only rule as to who was allowed to play on the PGA tour, to the Shoal Creek controversy, to Charlie Sifford not being allowed to play at the Masters even though he was qualified, to Fuzzy Zoeller’s remarks following Woods’ first Masters’ victory in 1997. Yet Williams’ incendiary comments seem to go beyond any of this in their viciousness and ugliness.
The caddy and his unfortunate attempt at humor occurred just days after John Terry, the captain of the English World Cup soccer squad, was alleged to have shouted a racial epithet at opponent Anton Ferdinand, forcing soccer authorities to open an investigation into the matter. We have also recently seen one of the few black hockey players in the National Hockey League endure having a banana peel thrown at him. So instead of being able to escape from the racial strife that seems to have a larger and larger grip on the world, sports are now exacerbating the problem.
The innocence of sports is being lost. And if sports are not a way for us to forget our troubles for a while, then what real purpose do they serve?