The failure of Penn State leadership to prevent the alleged sexual abuse of Jerry Sandusky has turned sports media into a sea of socio-cultural critics.
Since the story broke, it has been blamed on a “culture of silence”, “culture of secrecy”,” culture of impunity”, “culture of indifference”, and more. Is sports itself the culprit? Some point to the “football culture” or “coach worship” while others clarify that it’s the “culture of college football” or “culture of corruption” in all college athletics. Is it bigger than sports? Some define it as “Penn State culture” or broader “university culture” as part of an even wider “culture of self-aggrandizement” plaguing all of Pennsylvania politics. Others blamed those rioting… on a “culture of unrest” that was a product of a some willy-nilly “campus culture”. Others see a broader “culture of cover up” in both schools and churches as part of a larger institutional sickness – the almost always understated “culture of rape” that defends perpetrators before victims.
While analysis ranged from illuminating to ill-informed , perhaps never before in sports media history has there been so much mention of “culture” with so little discussion of “race”. It begs questions: What if this happened years ago at Grambling State University coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson? Instead of over 1000 white Penn State frat boys taking to the streets, what if were Kappas, Q Dogs, and other Grambling students crashing down lampposts and flipping over trucks? How would media respond? Exactly what sort of “culture” would be indicted?
Recent history provides clues.
When Michael Vick pled guilty to animal abuse, a Pulitzer Prize winning author at Sports Illustrated investigated the African-American community for a theory: it was Vick’s “ghetto loyalty” to his “homeboys who used him and sold him out”. When polls showed that Lebron James has been recently viewed far more harshly by white fans than African-American fans, ESPN readers learned more about the cultural concept of “Black Protectionism”. When in 2004, NBA player Ron Artest channeled his inner Babe Ruth by attacking a fan in the stands, it wasn’t just Rush Limbaugh who said it was “hip-hop culture on parade”, but a parade of sports journalists – both white and black – who hip-hopped onto Limbaugh’s bandwagon minus the blatant bigotry (Williams 2006; Leonard 2009). Since then, “hip-hop culture” has been sports media’s #1 go-to euphemism should a Black athlete act like golfer John Daly, or a sports fight break out on wood instead of on ice or a pitcher’s mound.
These critiques can be directly racial, sub-racial, or barely-coded. They can range from thoughtful to absurd to racist. They can be written by whites or authors of color. They often induce thousands of Internet comments by predominantly white readers who discuss perceived “Black Culture” and perceived pathologies. Through it all, one constant will remain:
The media critique and ensuing national discussion will become a racial one.
Unless the perpetrator looks like Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Benoit, Brett Favre, Rick Pitino, Tim Donaghy, Jim Tressell, Lance Armstrong, Brett Favre, George Steinbrenner, Todd Bertuzzi, Lenny Dykstra, Patrick Kane, Sean Avery, Marv Albert, and the 97% of sports editors who have the power to green-light what will and will not become a story.
If the Penn State scandal can’t spark a mainstream media discussion on “white culture”, then no case will. From Sandusky to his enablers to the rowdy crowds, this story has been dominated by white men and their privileges. We should specifically ask:
Is white male culture to blame?
The question itself is a tough one for us white men (though not Mike Elk). We love dissecting other racial cultures – just not our own. And if there is at least one undeniable aspect of “white culture”, it is our denial or avoidance of white culture!
But when up to 12 children get raped, no cultural stones should go unturned to prevent the next one. So let’s unturn three stones to get started: “whiteboy loyalty”, “white protectionism”, and “white hero worship”. Are these concepts rooted in a distinct culture of white male privilege and supremacy? Let’s investigate “the white community” for answers:
1) “Whiteboy Loyalty”: Beyond “The Ghetto”
“[Ghetto loyalty]’s a difficult premise to embrace. It suggests that athletes – primarily black athletes from poor backgrounds – are held captive by a code that requires them to help neighborhood friends, even to their own detriment.” – Sports Illustrated 2007
“Whiteboy loyalty” may also be a difficult premise to embrace. It suggests that sports leadership — primarily white men from privileged backgrounds — are more culturally predisposed to maintain their collective power and privilege, even at the detriment of innocent children. It also suggests that a more diverse staff of leadership – one more empathetic to being a victim of sexual assault — would be more likely to blow the whistle on Sandusky than his Penn State “homeboys”. As it turns out, there were a few leaders challenging Penn State’s power structure:
Former Penn State Student Affairs manager, Vicky Triponey challenged Paterno’s lax discipline policies in 2005, and was dismissed by 2007. In 2006, Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of Pennsylvania’s National Organization for Women, called for Paterno’s resignation for crassly dismissing player allegations of sexual assault. Tosti-Vasey was ignored while Triponey described Penn State’s culture as a “blind sense of loyalty”. Had more women truly been integrated into the leadership structure at Penn State, is it possible the culture of rape would never have flourished? We should ask.
Not only has rape culture been addressed mostly by women writers outside of the walls of the “white [male] world of sports journalism“, but the Sandusky investigation itself was broken by a female journalist and recent Penn State Alum Sara Ganim of The Patriot News whose March 2011 report was widely ignored by mainstream media . That diversity of staff might affect diversity of perspective is not a new idea. Nor are the results of Dr. Richard Lapchick’s latest ignored report on the white male dominance of sports media: That’s whiteboy loyalty.
But forget that… lets only write about the good ole boy network plaguing college football…
2) “White Protectionism”: Beyond Lebron
“’Black Protectionism’ is the [protective] response by large numbers of the black community to allegations that a famous black person has engaged in a criminal act or ethical violation.” — Katheryn Russell-Brown
Citing the definition above, ESPN’s Vincent Thomas explains the “black protectionism” of Lebron James in a balanced way unlike many previous mainstream offerings on black group support. However, what is missing from such “in group” discussions is what always seems to be missing — companion pieces from other authors that explore the real Lebron story: “white protectionism”. Namely, why would whites collectively view Lebron James more harshly than the NFL’s Ben Roethlisberger – accused of rape by two different women in the previous year? And beyond sports, why did Lebron’s “Decision” catch more heat and hate than the real outrageous “Decision” that very same day? Big Ben and Johannes Mehserle (officer who killed Oscar Grant) were perfect case studies on “white protectionism” – the institutional kind. This failure falls mostly on sports editors more than authors.
The Penn State riots might have redefined “white protectionism”. The crowd’s response was protecting Paterno whose inaction was protecting Sandusky while school leadership was protecting everyone but the victims. How far did it go? Did protection also include the local county district attorney (who declined to prosecute a Sandusky’s 1998 sexual allegation), the local police, and local media while this explosive case went “leak-free” for so long? Was Paterno protected just enough to get that last 409th win to surpass Eddie Robinson right before the grand jury report was released? Many have asked.
The riots were not the last white protective layer. That honor goes to silent sports editors and writers who refuse to ever examine white misbehavior with a racial lens (which might be okay if the reverse were true). We can cheer or riot for whoever we want, whenever we want, however we want. Guilt-by-race-association is for journalists of color to worry about. Not – my – problem. That silence is the sound of white protectionism.
But forget that… let’s get back to the audacity of Lebron…
3) “White Hero Worship”: Beyond Paterno
“Call it Mantleology—a cultlike following of Baby Boomers unprecedented in modern sports. [One] otherwise rational New York attorney, calls Mantle ‘my Achilles, part man, part God, giving the divine fits,’ but he turned down the chance to meet him lest he be confronted with his hero’s flaws.” — Jane Leavy, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle” (p. xix)
In Leavy’s exceptional 2010 biography, she is struck by the “force field” surrounding Mickey Mantle’s memory by the (white) men who worship him in a way that makes Willie Mays seem like a bench-warmer. Is “Mantleogy” and “Patern-ology” part of the same psychology? We should ask… Pre-scandal, at least Joe Pa earned his statue, but what about the others?
When boxing legend Joe Frazier died last month, a slew of obituaries obsessed on 40-year old insults received by Muhammad Ali, but much less the greatest insult: a hometown statue built for Rocky Balboa — “and he’s not even real!…” (hat tip: D-Wade). Tim Tebow might be a controversial NFL young gun, but not too young to get a statue erected at the University of Florida alongside Gator Greats Danny Wuerffel and Steve Spurrier. (Note to Emmitt Smith: stop your whining about leaving Florida with 58 records and some piddly all-time NFL rushing mark, you should have won the Heisman!) Last year’s death of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner garnered tributes, statues, and a case of sports media amnesia. Forgotten were his multiple felony convictions, tyrannical treatment of employees, and trailblazing status of the “welfare for billionaires” movement of holding taxpayers hostage to finance and Occupy Yankee Stadium back when protesters bought tickets. Does white hero worship transcend sports and morality? We should ask.
As “J. Edgar” hits the movie theaters, Hoover’s criminality and entrenched institutional racism, sexism, and heterosexism are not enough to remove his name from our FBI Headquarters. Civil War loser Jefferson Davis needs a separate Wikipedia page for his list of memorials. We still honor slave-holders as “freedom-fighters” as if Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown aren’t more qualified candidates. And yes, we even ignore teen rape by a middle-aged man even after truth and DNA evidence burst cherished myths.
But forget that past… what mean names did Ali call Frazier again?
Conclusion: Beyond Hip-Hop
“We got rowdy, and we got maced…, but make no mistake, the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend.”
– Penn State student
Without “hip-hop culture” to kick around, the Penn State waters might run deeper than most sports editors and writers care to swim. So we focus on “football culture” except “whiteboy loyalty” to Sandusky came from the textbook, not the playbook. We examine “coach worship” as the problem’s root instead of its symptom. We blame “university culture”, but “white protectionism” extends to churches, corporations, congress, police, media, and beyond. If we ever get past Jo Pa and his fans, we still have much larger crowds cheering far more undeserving men across national holidays. “Looking the other way” is the American way, and a troubling truth might be:
“We are Penn State!”
But who really wants to grapple with that? That’s just a little too far “outside the lines”.
…Spending two weeks on a Jalen Rose-Grant Hill “controversy” = good clean media fun.
…Looking in the mirror = less fun.
…Discussing the finer points of white male privilege, pathologies, and supremacy = root canal sans Novocain.
So can “white male culture” itself really be blamed for those children being sexually molested?…
Or are all forms of cultural “loyalty”, “protectionism”, and “hero worship” just complex social products of intersecting power, oppression, and privilege?
That philosophical question is for smarter folks to answer. The closest thing to certainty is this:
If children were raped by Eddie Robinson’s assistant, and scores of African-American students were rioting in the streets in support of Eddie while chanting “WE – ARE – GRAM – BLING…”
…we damn sure would be asking these questions.
Updated: Jan 3, 2012
 “Campus Culture” is winner of most absurd analysis that conflates protesting fired coaches or massive economic inequality. See A Tale of Two Protests.
 For example, Sara Ganim’s story forced Associated Press and larger press to give story “one and done” treatment. For example, ESPN posted one obligatory article without prime placement and generic title: “Report: Jerry Sandusky Investigated“.
 Previous mainstream article offerings harshly chastising African-American group responses to Vick, Bonds, and other black athletes have been one-sided, and did not adequately address support as a response to media racial double standards when compared to white athlete misbehavior.
 While Thomas’s article did inspire ESPN colleague Henry Abbot to redefine his question to “why are white people so upset” with Lebron, Roethlisberger’s various layers of white privilege went largely unexplored by broader media.
 Some questions on white protectionism of Roethlisberger: Was Ben — who was never charged with a crime despite considerable evidence — also protected by the police (and rape culture)? Why did ESPN refuse to report the first sexual assault civil suit filed against him? Why did local TV deliberately cover up a damaging story while Ben was giving them “the finger”while riding away helmetless on his motorcycle?
 Mantle’s popularity over Willie Mays can also be evidenced in baseball card prices, as Mantle’s most prized card is the 1952 Topps Rookie Card #311 commonly listed in mint condition for $50,000– more than 10 times the value of the Willie Mays rookie card #261 from the very same set ($4800).
 Week after his death, George Steinbrenner received a Sports Illustrated IPad cover entitled “An Appreciation” and article that promoting his hall of fame candidacy.
 In addition to the Steinbrenner statue in Tampa, Bud Selig also received a statue in Milwaukee last year.
 Hoover waged a criminal war on Martin Luther King, Civil Rights, and Black America, and would not hire women or homosexuals in the FBI for the nearly 50 years he led the institution. He would ultimately fire the female FBI agents working prior to his leadership in the 1920s.
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