Fool us once, shame on you….twice, shame on us
Maybe ESPN’s exhaustive “Before Jerry Sandusky; the Untold Story of the Most Dangerous Player in College Football” could too easily be interpreted as targeting the monumental failures at one college, by one powerful coach, to deal with violent misogyny. Maybe the meticulously researched 30,000-word report of a 1970s serial rapist could seem to be painting all big-time football players with the same brush: That of entitled, sub-human brutes with no fear of institutional or judicial guardrails.
In fact, “Untold” is an invaluable piece of journalism that gives voice to the victims in a disturbingly common culture that normalizes sexual assault. And it’s another warning of the age-old tendency to God-up our athletic stars, and how that allows sports organizations to bank on a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil disposition among fans.
It is the lurid tale of Todd Hodne, who had been a Long Island high school football star and, briefly, a scholarship player at Penn State more than 40 years ago, when his string of horrific crimes began to surface (yet were widely covered up). More than that, the story is what co-author Tom Junod called the “prelude to what happened in the Jerry Sandusky scandal” at Penn State 33 years later.
It was in early November 2011 that Sandusky, a celebrated veteran assistant coach at Penn State, was indicted for abusing scores of young boys. That led to the firing of Joe Paterno, Penn State’s sainted head coach, for having failed to act on complaints against Sandusky.
Immediately after those bombshells, Newsday dispatched me to Penn State’s next game in State College, Pa., where students and fans were in stages of anger and disbelief: That such a menace could have gone on for years right under their noses; that football and Paterno had become such mighty forces, bringing in $53 million the previous season, that such evil digressions could essentially be ignored; that Paterno could be guilty in any way, given his fatherly title of “JoePa,” his on-campus life-sized cardboard cutouts called “Stand-Up Joes,” his “success with honor” motto claiming to prioritize morality over athletic doings.
But there it was. And not, we learned from “Untold” by Junod and co-author Paula Lavigne, for the first time.
The Hodne story, beyond the kind of satanic details to set off creep-o-meter alarms, is about what Lavigne previously discovered in her exposes of sexual violence by athletes at Baylor and Michigan State. “If there is one universal,” Lavigne recently told Richard Deitsch on his Sports Media podcast, “it is certainly that there is an effort to keep things quiet, to protect the brand, find ways to deflect and conflate and put the blame elsewhere, make the argument that this is one bad apple.
“What we find typically is that it is not one bad apple. These incidents often point to systemic issues, and those system issues often, not always, involve a lack of transparency.”
Enough unsettling examples are out there to realize the Hodne piece can’t simply be about Penn State’s and Paterno’s sins of priority, that worshippers at the temple of jock celebrity continue to facilitate a blind-eye syndrome. The Cleveland Browns just traded for quarterback Deshaun Watson, facing sexual misconduct civil lawsuits by 22 women, and rewarded him with a $230-million, five-year deal. Jameis Winston was never charged in a rape case while starring at Florida State University — police reportedly did not investigate the allegation — and became a top NFL draft choice. The NFL’s Washington Commanders currently are being investigated by the House Oversight Committee for widespread workplace sexual harassment after years of accusations.
A 2019 USA TODAY investigation noted that NCAA rules allow athletic transfers to continue their playing careers even after criminal convictions, team suspensions or being expelled. The report identified more than two dozen athletes over a five-year period who, after having been disciplined for sexual offenses, simply found another school (and team) and resumed playing, and five others whose careers at their original schools were not interrupted by either convictions or judicial discipline.
There are some heroic figures in the “Untold” piece — specifically, Hodne’s Penn State victim Betsy Sailor and a Hodne teammate, Irv Panky, who helped Sailor confront her predator, the school’s football establishment and the justice system. But co-author Junod found far too familiar a pattern between the Hodne and Sandusky cases.
Junod told Deitsch that, with the publication of the gruesome Hodne narrative, there was plenty of Twitter defense of Paterno — just as there had been a great rush to his side in the Sandusky saga. “I think [Paterno] is an ambiguous figure,” Junod said. “There are definitely times when he is telling people to tell the truth, and there are definitely times when he’s telling people not to talk to the police without his permission. I don’t think that you can view Joe Paterno clearly unless you also view through this lens that we have created, that before Todd Hodne there was Jerry Sandusky…a second serial sexual predator that Joe Paterno had under his administrative oversight.”
“You would think that Joe Paterno learned something. And either he didn’t, or he learned the wrong thing.”