by Jason Fagone
This isn’t one of those pieces that I wanted to write. This is one of those pieces that I had to write, so that I can stop obsessing about something and move on.
What I’ve been obsessing about lately is the media coverage of the Penn State scandal. I can’t stop reading other people’s writing about Penn State. I can’t stop analyzing it and fact-checking it and pointing out, on Twitter, all that is dumb and lazy and opportunistic and grandstanding and cheap. I need help, is what I’m saying.
I went to Penn State. I arrived in 1996 and stayed until 2001. (I earned two degrees, journalism and photography.) I liked it there. I think I got a pretty good education. I made friends, mostly in the nerd dorm, where people hung out on Saturday afternoons in the fall and played video games and listened to DC post-hardcore records and generally took advantage of the fact that football Saturdays were the only times when the campus and the town were nice and quiet.
I attended maybe two football games in five years. They were fun! I also ate Peachy Paterno ice cream a couple times at the Penn State Creamery. Once I even saw Joe Paterno walking across a parking lot. He was alone. He looked old and shuffled along gooberishly. The man was never a dictator to me. If anything, he seemed like a loopy mascot: the sneaks, the khaki pants, the cartoonish face.
I’m not interested here in weighing in on the Penn State scandal proper. Other people have done a better job than I could do. The most powerful men at my alma mater stood by and did nothing while a pedophile raped kids. They knew it was happening, and they let it happen. They did it to preserve the reputation of the university. Those are the basic facts. They are enduringly horrifying and should never, ever be forgotten. I know that the victims can never be made whole, but I hope that the university becomes a strong advocate for their cause.
Here is what I can say. Penn State trained me as a journalist. It trained me well. So I am qualified to weigh in on the journalism of others. And I can tell you that most of the opinion journalism about Penn State, the vast majority of it, in fact, has been utter crap.
When, after the release of the Freeh Report, sports writers started to argue that Penn State football should be abolished — that the university-wide “culture of reverence for football” highlighted by Freeh was reason enough to demolish the team – I found that I disagreed. I felt that the football team was so inextricably tied to the university that if you got rid of the team, you would do irreparable damage to the parts of the university that I cared about, the parts that seemingly had nothing to do with football. I felt that abolishing the football team would harm academics. It would harm faculty recruitment. It would harm the Central Pennsylvania economy. It would produce vast and unpredictable ripple effects on people who had never had anything to do with the scandal, who had never done anything wrong.
And yet when I and others tried to make this case on Twitter, certain people would inevitably declare us coddlers of child rapists and whatnot.
So, I sat back, and I listened, and I read. I read everything.
In the end, I feel like I learned a lot about my own profession. I gained respect for writers I had never followed much, and I lost respect for writers I had long admired. I learned that it is easy, appallingly so, to smear an entire community of decent human beings with a few careless or malicious words. And I kept a mental tally of the good and the bad, because, I suppose, this is how my own brain needed to process the complex feelings I have felt over the last nine months.
A brief note before I launch into the list: I’ve kept it fairly confined. I haven’t included hucksters or sports talkers like @SportsByBrooks or @dan_bernstein, nor have I included the exemplary work of beat reporters like Sara Ganim or the execrable work of political hacks like Mark Steyn. The folks I single out below are columnists only: people who get paid to write opinion essays about the issues of the day.
I feel like this is fair.
Here we go.
5. “When you can plausibly argue that the eradication of a sports team would destroy an academic institution, that’s a signal the relative importance of sports and academics need to be recalibrated.“ –Josh Levin, Slate
Josh was one of the first out of the gate with a pro-death-penalty piece, and it remains one of the best. Part of the piece is an explicit response to an anti-death-penalty case that I made one night on Twitter. This particular sentence is so perceptive and Judolike in the way it uses my own best argument against me that I have to admire it. And I don’t even think Josh is wrong; if “the relative importance of sports and academics” were recalibrated at Penn State, well, that would be a good thing. (Disclosure: I’ve done a few pieces for Josh at Slate.)
4. “You can practically hear Shaughnessy coming into a paper bag while he writes that screed.“ –Drew Magary, Deadspin
Brilliant as social satire, maybe even more brilliant as media criticism. You can sense Magary’s conflict between how much he hates Penn State and the bile that rises when he reads the stuff that other people write about it. And he’s honest about both things. I love this piece. It made me laugh.
3. “He’s also a chump for thinking that shutting down the football program actually helps one child, deters one rape or addresses the problem of our reverence for the sham amateurism and skewed values created by big time college sports.“ –Dave Zirin, The Nation
Oh man. The night before this piece posted, I must have read six or seven nearly identical columns about why Penn State football should be abolished. What confused me wasn’t the tide of public opinion; what confused me was the market failure in journalism. Editors usually love counterintutive takes, and at this point, the counterintuitive take was an anti-death-penalty piece. But no one was writing that piece! Not one guy. I seriously began to despair for my profession.
Then I read Zirin. It’s not overstating it to say that this piece sort of restored my faith in journalism. In the context in which it was published, it was genuinely brave, and I think that shouldn’t be forgotten. Zirin makes all of the points I would have made if I wrote faster and had a far better command of the mendacity and corruption of sports institutions. Zirin’s beat is the intersection of politics and sports; I think this piece makes a powerful case for the value of political chops in a sports reporter.
2. “This is a child’s wish, this urgent, empty demand that someone do something, punish someone, say something, tear down a statue or rename a building or take some sort of action somehow and to some end.” –David J. Roth, The Classical
I like this piece, titled “Here’s to Shutting Up,” because it says, beautifully, and with a sort of long-zoom perceptive disgust, what I came to believe powerfully about most of the arguments about what should be done with Penn State: that they were not only wrong but deeply inadequate as well.
1. “Beyond the egregious and irreparable damage to those children, I hold them accountable for a betrayal of the people who raised me: My father, who has spent 35 years at Penn State conducting arcane organic chemistry research and teaching a generation of premed students; my mother, who spent two decades working at the university library, a wing of which now bears Paterno’s name.“ –Michael Weinreb, Grantland
Weinreb is a Penn State alum. His parents worked at the school for many years. He grew up believing in what Penn State called the “Grand Experiment” — the idea that football greatness and academic achievement could not just co-exist but reinforce each other. And so when he concludes, in this piece, that the Grand Experiment was a lie, his anguish is real and hard-earned. Here Weinreb channels an introspective faction of Penn Staters that hopes for something more than business as usual. There is no one else who has written about the school with as much historical knowledge, wisdom, eloquence, and moral force.
5. “Everyone who bought into that football-first, We are Penn State culture was an enabler of the continuing child abuse.” –Jan C. Ting, newsworks.org
This is from a piece by a Temple law professor. I don’t know anything about Jan C. Ting. All I know is that his argument is indistinguishable from the one in this satirical piece by The Onion.
4. “But I’d put up another darkly alluring statue behind Paterno, whispering in his ear: Mephistopheles.“ –Maureen Dowd, the New York Times
The reductio ad absurdam of Paterno-statue columns, filed more than a week post-Freeh and after hundreds of other sportswriters had already pointed out that Paterno was a sinner, not a saint. But like the last bidder at an auction, Dowd bested them all. In a piece stacked with eight references to classic literature — Marlowe, Goethe, “Damn Yankees,” Virgil, Shakespeare, Browning — Dowd didn’t just say that Paterno was a sinner. She said — she actually explicitly said — that he had made a deal with Satan.
3. “How the university leveraged football into something approximating intellectual prominence is one of the great stories of salesmanship.“ –Howard Fineman, The Huffington Post
As I said on Twitter, I actually found the old-fashioned, look-at-those-hicks elitism of this piece kind of reassuring; it’s something I’ve experienced personally. I understand it. So I wasn’t surprised to see someone use the famously bogus U.S. News and World Report rankings to mock and demean a large, diverse institution where almost a third of the students are the first in their families to attend college, and 76 percent get financial aid. ”Something approximating intellectual prominence”: it’s like a warm blanket of condescension.
2. “Was Spanier also thinking of the hotel owners?” –Amy Davidson, The New Yorker
I’ve thought a lot about this piece of Amy Davidson’s. I read it once through; it didn’t seem so bad. Then I read it again, and I started to get angry.
Here is how Davidson — who comes across like she has never seen, much less attended, a football game, or stepped foot on the campus of a major public university – summarizes the argument of people who want the Penn State football program to be preserved:
The question now is whether it is fair—whether it is humane—for anyone other than the complicit administrators to pay a price. The argument is that, if Penn State has to do without football, the ones who will suffer will be the players with scholarships, and the hotel owners in Happy Valley, and all the little sports that have grown at Penn State in football’s shadow. What did they ever do wrong?
Now, I could pick apart the straw men in this paragraph. “Hotel owners,” for instance, is a cute, dismissive way to speak about the 40,000 people who live in State College and the 1,700 jobs that depend on the $90 million that Penn State football pumps into the Central Pennsylvania economy every year. And by “all the little sports,” Davidson must mean, well, men’s and women’s volleyball, women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, baseball, softball, field hockey—the 27 out of 29 varsity sports at Penn State that produce no profits and are subsidized by the profits of football.
“All the little sports”!
But what really bothers me about this piece is the way that, after poorly summarizing the arguments of her opponents, Davidson links us to Jerry Sandusky in the very next sentence:
There is an unintentional irony in this argument: it is precisely the one that Sandusky traded on, the assumption is that the money football brings, the economic benefit, is the decisive factor in figuring out not only what is best for the university but what is right and what is wrong.
Might as well compare us to Hitler.
1. “It no longer even matters if there continues to be a university there at all.“ –Charlie Pierce, Grantland
Pierce’s piece is old. He wrote it last November, half a year before the release of the Freeh report. So I’m violating my own rules by including it on this list. But to me, this is the one that really hurts. It still hurts. This is the sentence I remember above all others. This sentence changed me.
It changed me not only because I’ve always really liked and respected Charlie Pierce’s stuff and it felt jarring to disagree with him so vehemently, but because the line, and the paragraph that contains it, is just so damned poetic. I am going to risk saying something a little ridiculous: it taught me about the power of words.
Pierce is a writer of great power and humor and grace. He writes quickly and is verifiably brilliant. And look at what he does here:
The crimes at Penn State are about the raping of children. That is all they are about. The crimes at Penn State are about the raping of children by Jerry Sandusky, and the possibility that people lied to a grand jury about the raping of children by Jerry Sandusky, and the likelihood that most of the people who had the authority at Penn State to stop the raping of children by Jerry Sandusky proved themselves to have the moral backbone of ribbon worms.
It no longer matters if there continues to be a football program at Penn State. It no longer even matters if there continues to be a university there at all. All of these considerations are trivial by comparison to what went on in and around the Penn State football program.
The first paragraph: so beautiful. So masterful. It’s like a bedtime story, with the repetition. And then Pierce hits you with these two perfect lines, perfectly rhythmic and perfectly casual: “It no longer matters if there continues to be a football program at Penn State. It no longer even matters if there continues to be a university there at all.” And you’re already onto the next part of the piece before you realize what Pierce is actually advocating for: the wholesale removal of an entire American university. Just sort of scraping it away like gum on his shoe. He never even breaks stride.
That is writing.
But you know what? That is all that it is.