Penn State Scandal: the Biggest Sports Story Ever?

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Last week, I was trying to think of where the Penn State scandal stacks up related to other major stories we have seen in the history of sports. After careful consideration, I think all other sports stories pale in comparison to what we have seen over the last week and a half.

I can think of three primary categories under which all major sports stories fall.

Infamy in sports seems to be things to which we can ascribe great social significance; notorious events, such as scandals; or specific moments when greatness is achieved.

With Penn State, the molestation scandal has directly led to the firing of the winningest coach in the history of college football. A football program, an athletic department, and a university seemed to have attempted to sweep a pedophile under the proverbial rug.

This scandal has cast a shadow on Penn State football that I’m not sure they will ever be truly freed from. The scarlet letter will brand this program so much so that, even many years from now, as a person watches a Penn State football game, the recollections of what has happened and the ugliness that occurred will come to mind.

As I have said, there are different categories under which major sports stories fall. To look at each of those briefly:

1. Events of social significance
examples: the Miracle on Ice when America beat the amazing USSR hockey team during the Cold War in the Olympics
Jesse Owens winning 4 Olympic Gold Medals in Hitler’s Germany
Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier

As we look at the major events in American history, often times there can be events found within the sporting world that sort of symbolize the moment.

While these deserve to be considered great moments in sports, they are often times that, to be blunt, had little actual impact. Sure, it was good for American morale that we beat the hated Russians, but if Team USA had lost or had the game never been played, it’s not like the outcome of the Cold War and modern history would have been irrevocably changed.

I don’t think it’s that the sports are significant in themselves, I think it’s that we look for significance, and when something in sports can be applied to society as a whole, I think a natural reaction can be intertwining the two.

2. Classic Moments
examples: Babe Ruth “calling his shot”
NC State winning the NCAA basketball championship on a last second play
the Doug Flutie Hail Mary to lead Boston College to victory over Miami

These moments are great, and the excitement and wonder of what can happen is a part of why so many people love sports. But I think that these events are ultimately secondary to the greater context of the specific games in which they were played.

Look at it like this. Every week, there are amazing plays made in the various sports. But the vast majority of them aren’t significant longterm and won’t be replayed after a few days.

With classical sports moments, it’s not that the plays themselves are any more special than what you could see any given day, it’s the fact that the stage is unique.

3. Notorious events and scandals
examples: SMU and the Death Penalty
Baylor basketball murder
Tiger Woods affairs

SMU football will always be associated with their rampant rules violations in the 1980 which caused the NCAA to give them the “death penalty (i.e. they heavily sanctioned them to a much higher degree than what had ever been done before in college athletics. These penalties set the SMU program back so far that it has only been over the past couple seasons that they are again finding any sense of legitimacy on the field.

While SMU was significant in football, the issue wasn’t pedophilia, and SMU never had anything close to the reputation that Penn State football has in terms of integrity and football tradition.

SMU also didn’t have the iconic, larger than life coach. SMU was covering up rules violations to benefit players that were of little actual significance, save for the fact that they were breaking rules.

Penn State had a mafia type in house system where they did nothing to distance themselves from a man who had a negative impact on the lives of young boys that will affect them forever.

When I look at these types of events and I think about what has happened at Penn State, I just don’t think anything even approaches the magnitude of this scandal.

In terms of coverage and exposure, then I don’t think it can really even be argued. The whole country has been paying attention to this story unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This is also the most major sports story I can think of since the popularization of the internet, and certainly since the popularization of social media. These factors combined with ’round the clock news has led this story to unprecedented coverage out of the sporting world.

jrb