Joe Paterno and the sports-media complex

Joe Paterno has earned that right. He's got rings. He has won national championships, donated millions of dollars to that university. He has earned the right. Graham Spanier. Who the hell is Graham Spanier? Tim Curley. Who the hell is Tim Curley? These guys are bureaucrats making their careers on the back of Joe Paterno's work. 100,000 people don't come that stadium to see them. They come to see the program Joe Paterno has built. And they're going to tell him what to do?

Joe Paterno is Penn State

He can do what he wants. He's Joe Paterno


That conversation, in itself, never happened. But conversations like it did happen. Periodically in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Penn State would struggle in football and there were rumblings that the game had passed Paterno by, you'd hear discussions like that. Paterno had done so much for the school that no one should tell him when to retire, when to quit, etc.

Why? Because in the sports media worldview, he had earned the right to dictate the terms of his career. He was beloved by fans. He had been there forever. He had won national championships. He hadn't been investigated by the NCAA. More importantly, he had won national championships.

Because he was Joe Paterno.


There's no need to rehash the Paterno news from yesterday, the gut-wrenching detail of the Freeh Report, the fact that the evidence shows Paterno knew there were serious allegations against Jerry Sandusky and actively covered them up. You know all that.

What I wonder is: What role did the sports-media complex play in this case?

Let me be very clear: There media bear no culpability here. They bear no responsibility. The reporters who wrote glowing love poems to Paterno over the years did not rape children, nor did they actively cover up allegations of child rape. Those who did are criminals. Sports media members in this case did nothing wrong.

But you can argue that the sports-media complex helped create and perpetuate a culture in which a football coach can have absolute power in a university setting. You can argue that the sports-media complex created and perpetuated a culture in which the success and reputation of a school's athletic team became more important than anything else. You can argue that the sports-media complex created and perpetuated a culture that grants near god-like status upon successful coaches and athletes - to the point where they are not questioned or held responsible for their actions until it is far too late.

This isn't just about Joe Paterno. You hear this when any legendary coach is mentioned. You hear this when any successful coach or player is mentioned. Once you win - especially once you win in a certain way (classy, honorable, no shortcuts, etc.) - you have "earned the right" to say and do certain things. Because you have proven yourself.

One of the things I am studying this summer is the Hughes and Coakely notion of The Sport Ethic, which are four norms that elite athletes and coaches subscribe to: Dedication to the game; accept risks and play through pain; strive for distinction; accept no obstacles in the pursuit of success. I'm becoming very interested in how sports media perpetuates that sport ethic.

For almost his entire coaching career, Joe Paterno was successful under the norms of The Sport Ethic. And because of that, he was celebrated by the sports media and the fans. He was long-afforded legend status because of what he had achieved and how he had achieved it. And that helped create and perpetuate a culture in which a child rapist could hang around a football locker room with young boys and not be arrested for a decade. It helped create and perpetuate an organizational culture in which no one felt safe or comfortable in reporting incidents or challenging the coach and his decisions.

Because he was Joe Paterno.