I never understood the “toy department” designation so many sports journalists contend with among their peers.
I thought it was an unfair dig at our credibility and created an inferiority complex in our fraternity of scribes, as if we weren’t capable of handling the heavy lifting typically undertaken by news and investigative reporters.
In so many ways, the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky scandal affirmed for me that a “toy department” culture exists in sports writing. Except “toy department” doesn’t quite do it. Try sex-toy department.
Sports writing, on some level, is soft-core porn. That’s a generalization that probably offends my media peers. Let me be clear.
There are respectable sports writers, true muckrakers like ESPN’s Mike Fish unearthing scandals and scuzz-balls. The reaction to former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s report on Penn State’s handling of the Sandusky sex scandal is evidence of that. The report was met by cries of institutional leaders’ failings to end a former defensive coordinator’s abuse.
We, the sports media, excoriated Joe Paterno, the departed iconic Penn State head coach, for being Sandusky’s protector and enabler after it was revealed that he played a part in discouraging school administrators from outing Sandusky.
We scrutinized the way Paterno’s deification afforded him ample sway over an institution that put a premium on protecting its cash cow of a football program. We talked about how this is inherent to the larger culture in collegiate athletics. We called for change to the system.
But what we haven’t done enough of is acknowledge our stake in the creation of this Frankenstein structure.
It’s not in our nature. We’re reflexive. We don’t want to acknowledge our self-interest in the Sandusky scandal, but a little introspection would lead us to reconcile that, on some level, we birthed Penn State, Paterno and Sandusky’s atrocities.
We love creating star-driven narratives, if only because we want to chronicle the fall from grace. But in doing so, we created a framework for abuse by canonizing a sinner a saint.
And Paterno, Penn State and Sandusky’s path to sainthood was easy.
Win a few games. Do it without the appearance of recruiting violations or improprieties. Give us access to fill our inch counts. And do it with an air of humility.
They satisfied those demands. And we rewarded them with a gushing story line. Our myopia enabled the utopia of Happy Valley. With every syrupy feature, every high-praise column, we polluted Paterno into delusions of grandeur.
His Grand Experiment — the melding of academics and athletics — bubbled into an overzealous chemistry project. Playbooks became more important than textbooks. And the handbook on humanity was thrown out in favor of cooking the PR books and making sure the money pot kept boiling.
Until recently, we ignored women like Vicky Triponey. She was one of the few Penn State administrators who long ago tried casting light on Paterno’s consolidation of power. She often clashed with the coach over player discipline, according to a lengthy CNN report, and paid the consequences for it.
“Well, Vicky, you are one of a handful of people, four or five people, who have seen the dark side of Joe Paterno,” former President Graham Spanier told Triponey. “We’re going to have to do something about it.”
She was cast out of Penn State, ridiculed, given leper status. For a while, her academic career was soiled. What she experienced is the same thing sports journalists fear: that black mark.
You have to have a certain level of self-hatred to be a sportswriter. The politics of the craft mandate it.
There’s no such thing as unencumbered honesty anymore. Honesty limits our access, puts a cap on our upward mobility. Honesty begets phone calls to editors from outraged fans and PR people.
Attack-dog tactics on message boards limit our ability to be true watchdogs of democracy. We’re constantly worried about our credibility.
If this sounds like a bleeding heart, so be it. I have to clear my conscience for my culpability in the Penn State episode. Look who uncovered the Sandusky scandal: Sara Ganim, a crime reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Penn.
I didn’t want to believe it, but I’m starting to think the stereotype is correct. Sports journalism is the “toy department” of a newspaper.
Are we going to fix it or continue burying our heads in the sandbox?
Isaac Avilucea is a former Daily Lobo managing/sports editor and currently a sports reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican.