"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Criticism

Fly, Flied, Flew

In Game 5 of the 2000 World Series, Mike Piazza represented the tying run with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Mariano Rivera was on the hill for the Yankees protecting the 4-2 lead and attempting to shepherd home another World Championship. Rivera uncorked an 0-1 cutter and Piazza appeared to make solid contact and drove the ball to center field.


The ball took off and spun Bernie Williams around as he raced back in pursuit. But Shea Stadium isn’t a band box and the last second cut of Mariano’s signature pitch guided the ball past Piazza’s sweet spot and down towards the end of the bat. Bernie caught up to the ball easily before the warning track and the Yankees were champions again.


Mike Piazza flied / flew out to center field.

Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and expert linguist (among other things), says, “In  baseball, one says that a slugger has flied out; no mere mortal has ever “flown out” to center field.”

Before you trust him implicitly, be careful, dude’s a Red Sox fan.

Let us know your preference in the comments.

Suspension Bridge

A fundamental tenet of communication theory is that because the purpose of communication is to transmit information, it is irreversible. There are no “take-backs.” Apologies for verbal or written foul-ups are hollow. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. We live in an era right now where companies and universities are doing background checks on prospective employees and students by scouring Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds and other social media activity. A regular person has nowhere to hide. Public figures are under much greater scrutiny.

Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen learned that the hard way.

Not that he has ever hidden. He is no stranger to opening his mouth, inserting his foot, and still managing to demonstrate the capability to land in trouble. His latest misstep earned him a team-levied five-game suspension. The blogosphere and conservative baseball media population exploded. The first four words of Sean Gregory’s profile in Time Magazine are Guillen’s damning quote: “I love Fidel Castro.” He would go on to say he respected Castro’s survival skills, and that‘s what he loved about Castro. Communication is irreversible. No way to talk around that.

Guillen manned up. He didn’t put out a statement. He was contrite, apologizing to the Marlins and to the Cuban-American community that has helped make Miami the multicultural center it has become.

The aftermath and the analysis has been a series of contradictions. A combination of liberal versus conservative and wanting to have it both ways. The same people that in the past who have called Guillen “refreshing” for speaking unfiltered and disregarding the art of saying nothing, are now condemning him. Steven Goldman expresses his libertarian view at Bleacher Report:

…Those who are standing on the sidelines sniping and calling for suspensions and termination need to consider their own motives. Moral outrage is cheap when the target has been so spectacularly, in Guillen’s words, “dumb.” This is shooting Marlins in a barrel. It’s much harder to stake a stand on an issue that is in the grey zone, when others might snipe back at you.

He continued…

Let us be clear: There is a difference between suggesting the Marlins needed to suspend Guillen to appease the Cuban-American community and another to argue that the quality of his remarks themselves deserved suspension. The former is what political bloggers call “concern trolling,” posing as a helpful pal of some third party that really doesn’t need your advice, thanks. The latter is, first, un-American, not in terms of the Bill of Rights—this is not a First Amendment matter given that your employer can censor you in the workplace all they want—but that any call that encourages punishment for speaking one’s mind, no matter how offensive, should be antithetical to our very being.

Ken Rosenthal may have been one of those Goldman observed “standing on the sidelines sniping.” Monday, in his FOX Sports column, Rosenthal called for the Marlins to suspend Guillen. He wrote:

Good people make mistakes, and Guillen just made the biggest of his career. Chances are the matter will blow over; everything seems to blow over in this society of limited attention spans. But the Marlins shouldn’t allow it to blow over. No, the Marlins should take a stand.

Suspend Guillen.

Not because a protest group wants him out.

Because it’s the right thing to do.

There is outrage in Miami. There is outrage among the Latino community, not just the Cuban-American population in Miami. The juxtaposition of Guillen’s comments with the opening of the Marlins’ new stadium in Little Havana has much to do with that. Dave Zirin notes this in his latest piece at Edge of Sports.

Loria desperately needed a hot start for his team and some sugary sweet media coverage for his new ballpark. Then his new manager Ozzie Guillen decided to share his views about Cuba and Fidel Castro. … This issue is…now about whether the ire produced by Guillen’s words will be directed against Loria, his grab of public funds, and the entire Miami baseball operation. If that happens, this issue won’t die, but the Marlins might.

Keith Olbermann, speaking as a guest on Dan Patrick’s radio show, said that sports provide a forum for us, the public, to address sensitive social issues. That “sports are well ahead of the rest of society on these issues.”

The blog Platoon Advantage would beg to differ.

…It’s certainly understandable why the Marlins felt like they needed to react.

Though they didn’t feel the need to respond when team president David Samson called the people of Miami stupid. …There are dozens and dozens of equally or more foolish and offensive things done by Major League players, managers, coaches, front office types, and officials every year. And these offenses don’t get investigated by the Commissioner. These offenses don’t earn team-levied suspensions. These offenses don’t get noticed at all, despite the real damage they do to the communities where they happen. If we’re going to have such a low standard so as to punish Guillen for making a bad joke (make no mistake, there’s no way to honestly construe what Guillen said as a statement of support for Castro, his tactics, or his regime), where are the suspensions for everyone else who makes baseball look bad?

What can we learn from all the coverage? We know Guillen’s comments were wrongheaded on many levels. We know those comments will be available forever. We know that there is heavy criticism, much of it founded, much of it personal. We know that all of it is irreversible. And yet again, we learn that no matter how hard the general sports fan wishes politics and sports to be separated, they are inextricably linked.

[Photo Credit: Al Diaz and C.M. Guerrero/ Miami Herald]

Legacy Students

Joe Paterno died Sunday at age 85. Life and career retrospectives abounded. Wins and losses were mentioned, as were bowl game triumphs, the iconic look he brought to the sidelines every Saturday. Most of all, his contributions to the “student athlete” and the culture he created outside the gridiron and the towering edifice that is Beaver Stadium were discussed.

Not be ignored, though — and it wasn’t — was his role, his actions and his inaction regarding a certain former assistant coach and alleged pedophile. The Onion’s satirical headline spoke volumes: “Joe Paterno Dies In Hospital; Doctors Promise to Tell Their Superiors First Thing Tomorrow”.

Legacies are meant to demonstrate an example to be set for successors. Sounds simple but legacies are complicated. Look at Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Pete Rose, Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant, Bobby Knight, Vince Lombardi, Wilt Chamberlain, Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Lawrence Taylor, or most recently, Bill Conlin. Look at any iconic athlete, coach, writer, celebrity or politician whose indiscretions  made them as infamous as their contributions to their chosen fields made them famous. Look at the names I just listed. If we were playing word association, you could probably think of the words racist, drunk, womanizer, gambler, bully, insane, drug addict or kid toucher as quickly as you could think of Hall of Famer, Hit King, 714 home runs, 6 titles or  14 majors. Bryant, winner of 5 NBA titles and still considered in many circles the best player in the sport, was acquitted of the rape charges nine years ago; yet when a philandering husband suddenly buys a lavish gift for his spouse as a means of apologizing, it’s called a “Kobe Special.”

Observing how the media has treated those players and coaches over the years, has there been a reluctance to hold any of them accountable for their actions? In many cases, no. Thus, in reading and listening to the Joe Paterno tributes, I was curious how the media would address Paterno’s role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal in the context of his legacy.

The common refrain was that while we can’t dismiss his management of the Jerry Sandusky situation, we shouldn’t let that cloud our view of the man. If you knew someone who had a reputation of always going above and beyond for others, yet suddenly did the bare minimum and expected that to be enough, what would you think?

In The Nation, Dave Zirin wrote:

…according to our conception of who this man was supposed to be, there was no authority above Joe Paterno. There was instead an expectation that this man of integrity would without hesitation do far more than just fulfill his minimum legal requirements. Is that fair? When it’s your statue on campus and when the buildings bear your name, most would say hell yes.

Howard Bryant wrote one of many commentaries for ESPN.com on Paterno’s death. He brought forth a similar sentiment as Zirin:

…Paterno had too much power with not nearly enough oversight. He was bigger than the school, and the school cowered to him. Paterno gave millions back to Penn State; and as his power grew and grew unchecked over four decades, the university lost the ability to control whether he was benevolent or a tyrant.

It was not a power particularly special to Paterno, but to his industry. The entire culture of the coach deserves deconstruction and revision, for the same can be said in varying degrees of Bryant and Knight, Bowden and Calhoun, Krzyzewski and Boeheim.

When it was time for Paterno to use the power that he had accrued — when he became aware that for years, children allegedly were being molested under the ceiling of the football monument he had built — he did not lead.

Joe Posnanski is writing a book about Joe Paterno. He did not blog about JoePa’s death, but he filed a piece for SI. The last words of the column quote Paterno, who said that “hopes the victims find peace.” Posnanski precedes the quote by writing that Paterno wanted his life measured in totality rather than by “a hazy event involving an alleged child molester.”

Perhaps the most vivid piece of writing about “the hazy event” and Paterno can be found in  this diary. Warning: it’s not for the sensitive. It is heart-wrenching, explicit, and likely represents the anger of many who have sat back and thought “WTF?” regarding Paterno, Sandusky and the events of the past two months.

Jeff MacGregor also posted for ESPN.com, with a take that I’m sure will be used in the Sport Studies curriculum at universities across the country. I’ve written in this space about man, myth, and legend; I did so in my first story on this topic back in November. MacGregor is much better with metaphor:

Joe Paterno was no more and no less than human, and no living man can contend with his own legend. No man can live in his own shadow.

A bronze statue of Joe Paterno standing seven feet high and weighing 900 pounds was swung into place at Penn State on Nov. 2, 2001.

Four months later to the day, March 2, 2002, Mike McQueary stood at Joe Paterno’s door. He had a terrible story to tell.

There’s a poignant scene in “The Deer Hunter” near the intermission when Robert De Niro’s character, Michael  is carrying Steven (John Savage), a badly injured friend, over his shoulder to safety. It is one scene among many makes the film’s title so significant; Michael is carrying Steven the same way he’d carry a deer after shooting it. Steven had become the deer carcass. Similarly, is it not reasonable to believe, based on MacGregor’s closing paragraphs, that four months after his statue was erected at Penn State, that Paterno became the statue?

Paterno told Posnanski he wanted the victims to have peace. The first step could have been taken right then and there. Maybe even sooner. That, for many, is the focal point of any discussion about the late Joe Paterno’s legacy. And in the cumulative analysis of the man, the coach, the academic, the philanthropist, benefactor and humanitarian, we cannot be afraid to hold him accountable for that.

[Photo Credit: Dr Brady]

It Can’t Happen Here? Think Again

And if I say to you tomorrow
Take my hand child, come with me.
To a castle I will take you
But what’s to be they say will be.
— Led Zeppelin, “What Is and What Should Never Be

As the Penn State scandal continues to evolve, it is important to note that the grand jury investigation and report is available for reference. Will reading the grand jury report, or instructing people to do so, help make the Blogosphere and the Twitterverse more peaceful? Highly unlikely. I haven’t seen people this divided and angry over a sport-related story since the OJ Simpson trial.

How do we put into context what allegedly happened at Penn State, according to the report? Some steps are to 1) to view the progress of the story to date; 2) how the media has covered the story; and 3) examine from an academic context how the iconic status of Paterno and the culture he created in Happy Valley shaped the way the university managed – or depending on your perspective, mismanaged – the situation.


Objectivity requires one to step outside the bubble of the first-person point of view, assess information, determine what is fact and fiction, relevant and irrelevant, and interpret that information accordingly to construct a narrative. In this context, facts are absolute. They are cut and dry and emotionless, much like the components of a mathematical equation. Facts help derive truth, which is a more abstract concept. This story tests every fiber of what journalism students are taught. It shatters the mythology that those who cover sport – not just college football, Penn State, or Joe Paterno – have contributed in drafting.

There is an agenda supporting the way every article published in every periodical is framed, either on the writer’s part or by the organization employing said writers. On television, the number of programs parading talking heads deemed “experts” presenting their contrasting opinions in the interest of equal time passes for intelligent programming. This is not objective, nor is it journalism.

Siphoning fact from fiction and placing that information into a legal context was the task assigned to the federal grand jury that investigated the actions of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. The contents of the report are graphic, provocative, and a slew of other adjectives that cut to the core of our emotions. For those of us who are parents and entrust – or have entrusted – our children to a third party for care, it is impossible to view this story through a prism of objectivity. It conjures primitive, visceral reactions steeped in anger. But the grand jury report is only one piece to the investigative puzzle. The Patriot-News in Harrisburg has provided in-depth reporting. A timeline and the depth of knowledge of the situation among the key players is noted here.

It is under these volatile circumstances that national media organizations have flooded central Pennsylvania, piggybacking the solid journalistic efforts of the Patriot-News and turning the area known as Happy Valley into the stuff of tabloid. Joe Posnanski, who is writing a book on Joe Paterno, wrestled with his emotions and the difficulty in being objective in a strong, well-written blog post. But to those of us on the outside analyzing Posnanski’s position, given that he moved to State College, gained unfettered access to Paterno, how can he reconcile doing this book now, or at least amending the angle? This series of events, for better or worse, is now the defining piece to Paterno’s career, possibly his life, and to encourage the people who supported him for years to stand up now is naïve. Perhaps we’ve learned, through the number of sponsors that are removing themselves from Saturday’s broadcast and the power struggles between Paterno and his superiors that have come to the fore, that JoePa didn’t have the level of support that he thought; that there were people who finally stopped buying what Paterno sold.

Buzz Bissinger, who wrote his own reaction piece, tweeted: “Note to Posnanski: junk your book unless you re-report it get the Joedust out of your eyes. Your post was pathetic justification of JoePa.”

CBS’s Gregg Doyel went one further in this tweet: “Heard Joe Posnanski is on campus defending Joe Pa. Calling him a scapegoat. Smart guy. Decent writer. Total moron.”

People unconditionally – or in Posnanski’s case, conditionally – supporting Paterno, are not viewing his involvement and inaction with a sense of totality. Involving emotions in the evaluation process immediately kills objectivity. Posnanski, a veteran, respected award-winning journalist and writer, know this. He admitted as much. But he also has to realize that by continuing down this path, his own reputation is at stake.

* * *

Penn State alum Chris Korman wrote an impassioned blog Wednesday in the Baltimore Sun. In it, Korman describes his time as a student journalist at Penn State and examines the way the local and national media have covered the events while trying to reconcile his own feelings. Korman writes that while Sandusky is unquestionably the main player, the tipping point of the investigation and coverage occurred when the focus shifted to Paterno’s inolvement.

“… the Sandusky story did not gain traction when it should have. The Patriot-News, in Harrisburg, first reported that he was the subject of a grand jury investigation for the indecent assault of a teenage boy on March 31. … Yet it does not appear that any of the major news outlets now swarming campus paid much attention. Sure, Paterno had not yet been tied to the scandal. But it should have at least sent a few reporters scurrying; Sandusky, after all, remained affiliated with Penn State.”

In other words, Sandusky might be the principal player and newsmaker, but Paterno’s name value makes the story. Sandusky’s alleged actions lead to one visceral reaction; Paterno’s role in the chain of events spawns another.

YES Network’s Kimberly Jones, also a Penn State alum, has been a fixture on Mike’d Up with Mike Francesa this week. Tuesday, she discussed her time covering Penn State Football, the lack of access afforded to reporters, the insular, protective culture Paterno created and fostered in University Park, and perhaps most damningly, that Sandusky was seldom seen without kids from his Second Mile organization around him. Thursday, she commented on the lack of leadership the University has shown.

Thursday morning’s talk radio rotation featured a mixture of intelligent conversation and rancor. On WFAN, Craig Carton verbally flogged a female Penn State student who called in to give the vibe in State College, but also someone who pledged her support for Paterno, as did her parents. She mentioned she was a journalism student and wondered why reporters weren’t trailing Sandusky as he went on a shopping spree at Dick’s Sporting Goods. She said she believed Paterno didn’t do enough, but he shouldn’t be made the scapegoat, like she and many others believed the media were responsible for. It helps provide a context for the actions of Mike McQueary and his father, John (more on this later in the column).

On ESPN Radio, Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic interviewed a number of former Penn State players, asking them common softball questions, while outside the context of the interviews highlighting the young boys listed as victims in this scandal and questioning the status of Mike McQueary for Saturday’s game against Nebraska.

At present, the status of the coverage is now past Paterno, save for the question of whether or not the media were responsible for scapegoating the 84-year-old coach. JoePos told a class at Penn State he believed that to be the case. Dictionary.com defines a scapegoat as “a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place.” Paterno is not being made to bear blame for anyone other than himself. He is not being made to suffer for Jerry Sandusky. He is enduring the consequences of his own action and inaction.

Reading the Korman article, maybe it’s time that happened. Korman points to the culture of ignorance that existed during his time on campus, and beyond. He specifically points to an ESPN report that compiled the following figures on criminal activity involving Penn State football players from 2002-2008: 46 players were charged with 163 counts.

Stephen Mosher, Professor of Sport Studies at Ithaca College, examined Paterno through the veil of the coach’s 1989 appearance on a PBS roundtable program. Mosher writes:

“What is terrifying is that Paterno claims that, in sports, ‘you give the responsibility to the authority of others.’ And that type of reasoning is what allowed Paterno and the others in the PSU ‘chain of command’ to convince himself that he had done enough when confronted with the unspeakable horror over thirteen years ago.

No rational human being would entrust the welfare of the vulnerable to a six-year old. And that is exactly what occurs in the sport culture every single day…”

People who have played team sports, covered team sports, interviewed coaches or former coaches for a living will say that accountability starts at the top. In this case, it’s the head coach. How does that make Paterno a scapegoat? Because he was the biggest name? Now people are posting signs asking for the media to go home; that with Paterno out, the story is over and there’s nothing more to report.

But there is much more, and it is going to get much worse before it gets better. While Paterno was the most prominent domino to fall, there will be others. The next is likely McQueary. (UPDATE: A few hours after this column was posted, McQueary was placed on indefinite administrative leave, effective immediately.) A spotlight remains on the University Administration and the Board of Trustees, whose continued attempts at damage control – which are the topic of countless forums among PR professionals – have resulted in an epic fail.


Sport plays a role in culture and society, just as cultural and societal factors help forge behavior in sport. Actions in sport, both on the field and off, affect politics and business dealings. Sports are entertainment, a supposed escape. On a more humanistic note, we want to see purity in the athletic endeavor, and nothing more. In the past two weeks, we’ve had “Tebowing” and Penn State. In-your-face religion and the alleged pedophilic acts by a coach taking place on campus and what may prove to be a decade-long cover-up. The Penn State Affair is a sports story. Although the primary subject matter is not sport-related, the context of it and the key figures in the story are tied to football.

Penn State University – the football program in particular – is a cash cow. To that end, it is the most important school in the Big Ten Conference. PSU, according to an online report, has the most valuable football team in the Big Ten, and the third-most valuable in the NCAA, based on gross revenue and pure profit. Going beyond football, Penn State hosts a high number of conference championship events and because of its production facilities and student involvement, is the largest provider of content to the Big Ten Network.

Furthermore, deposed president Graham Spanier was Chairman of the Bowl Championship Series. Jay Bilas noted in an interview with Greenberg and Golic Wednesday morning that at a recent NCAA university presidents’ retreat, Spanier was touting “integrity, integrity” for the BCS Bilas then asked rhetorically, “How can he continue in his capacity?” Later in the evening, the Board of Trustees fired Spanier. In Thursday’s aftermath, NCAA President Mark Emmert issued a statement and used the word “integrity” to describe both Spanier and Paterno.

The football program, as it does for many colleges across the country – not just major Division I colleges and universities – creates the campus identity. A note from the blogosphere illustrates this fact:

“As I was driving to work this morning, I heard one of your own call in to The Herd and explain that he didn’t know how he was going to unapologetically put on the Blue and White and sing “Fight On, State” this Saturday.  He’s not the only one to express that sentiment.  Perhaps you’re feeling a little this way.

This is what I want to say to you.  You are not Joe Paterno.  You are not Tim Curley.  You are not Gary Schultz.  You are not Graham Spanier, and you are sure as hell not Jerry Sandusky.  Their alleged sins are not your own.  They may be the most recognizable faces of your beloved program, but they are not Penn State.  They are not a 156 year old center of higher learning.  They are not a century of football tradition.  Their flaws cannot eclipse the innumerable scientific, artistic, and humanitarian contributions your university, and its 44,000 students and 570,000 living alumni have made and will continue to make to the world at large.”

An Ohio State fan wrote the open letter in an effort to show empathy resulting from the recent scandals that rocked the Buckeyes football program and led to Jim Tressel’s disgraceful dismissal. Where the letter is incorrect, sociologically speaking, is that Paterno, Sandusky, Curley and Schultz, as well as the kids taking the field on Saturday, ARE Penn State because they are the most public representatives of the institution. The program is bigger than the university. The football players and coaches are the perpetual BMOC’s. Paterno held more influence than the school President. This is true at Penn State and any other school where football reigns supreme.


Coaches of youth sports tell kids on their teams that the work ethic, ideals, etc., learned on the field help build character outside the lines. They are tantamount to life lessons. The truth is that nature and nurture build character, not participation in sport. Good parenting and development of a moral compass build character. Does the coach who sticks the worst kid on the team in right field so he won’t have a meaningful effect on the game have character? How did sport help this coach in that respect? What led him to believe that winning a Little League game at the cost of potentially killing the confidence of that right fielder was positive? Does the kid who took the most reps in practice or spent the most time in the batting cage exhibit positive character traits when, following a disheartening loss, he says, “It’s always the bottom of the lineup that screws us”? No. It works in the reverse: you bring the personality traits you inherit and then hone as you gain life experience into the field of play.

In a guest spot with Greenberg and Golic, former Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, talked of Paterno as a father figure and a “maker of men.” This is a common refrain among football players and how they discuss their coaches, or how any mentee views a mentor. What, then, do we conclude about the character of Mike McQueary, who played football for Paterno and has been on the coaching staff for nearly 10 years? On March 1, 2002, according to the grand jury report, McQueary witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers of the Lasch Football Building and rather than break it up and save the child, he turned away, called his father, who advised him to report the incident to Paterno.

Sandusky worked for Joe Paterno for nearly 30 years. Did football build him into a pedophile? Tim Curley played for Paterno and rose up the ranks to become athletic director. Did sport help build his character such that the grand jury found his testimony “not credible”?


The fallout of the past several days has been thus: Paterno and Spanier are gone. Athletic Director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, senior vice president of business and finance of the university, resigned on Sunday.

This is the trickle-down effect of what was Paterno’s “Grand Experiment.” The Korman article addressed this, specifically noting Paterno’s vision of character and the culture he sought to establish. This “Grand Experiment” helped construct the myth. We know now that the events cited in the grand jury report and continuing investigations have blown it up.

This incident now defines Paterno’s career. It’s as if the previous 30+ years leading up to the first years the Sandusky transgressions allegedly took place are moot. The public power struggle that took place Wednesday between Paterno and the Board of Trustees had a “JoePa’s Last Stand” feel to it. The BOT didn’t afford him the luxury of determining when he would exit.

Looking at the recent falls of prominent college football coaches like Bobby Bowden and Jim Tressel, negligence was their undoing. The same is true for Paterno, who despite saying he “wished he could have done more” did not act on the moral high ground that he espoused and supposedly taught his players. He only proved that he wasn’t worthy of being held to a higher standard; that he was a hypocrite.

Dave Zirin, in his initial reaction piece published Monday, wrote: “It’s tragic that it’s come to this for a legend like Joe Paterno. But it’s even more tragic that protecting his legend mattered more than stopping a child rapist in their midst.”

A community is in denial and exhibiting the five stages of grief in textbook fashion. Amid this scene in State College, Pennsylvania, there is a game against Nebraska to prepare for.

But the games can’t mask the institutional failures anymore.

[Photo Credit: Washington Post]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver