Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

Penn State scandal altered fans sense of trust in the world of sports

Jim Prisching/AP

As the year in sports comes to a close, we remember those we lost: Joe Frazier, Al Davis and Harmon Killebrew. Proud Oriole Mike Flanagan, golfing great Seve Ballesteros, Indy champion Dan Wheldon — gone, long before their times.

But the friend we mourn the most has yet to have a proper burial. His name was Trust. He was officially pronounced dead on Nov. 5 in a Pennsylvania attorney general’s grand jury report.

Gallery

Gallery

He was found without a pulse inside the Penn State football building, adjacent to the showers.

He had been sick for years, of course. Corrupt college presidents, coaches and boosters had been clubbing at his immune system. Cheating titans of baseball and cycling, who put pills and syringes in their bodies and lied about it, also took their toll.

But the death blow came last month, in 23 unsparing pages of testimony, eight victims of child sexual abuse.

The alleged perpetrator was Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno’s longtime defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team.

As more victims courageously came forward, as another man of power and position at Syracuse was racked by his own sexual abuse allegations, the story of the year in sports became the most sad and awful story of not merely 2011 but of our generation.

The dominoes are still falling.

ESPN cowardly hid behind journalism ethics for not turning over an audio recording from 2002 to police that implicates former Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine of alleged child molestation. Former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin recently resigned amid reports that he had allegedly sexually abused family members when they were children.

The story altered the prism through which we view “bad people” in jock culture; it changed who and what we used to call “evil” and “dirty;” it even changed how we asked someone if they are evil and dirty.

If Jim Gray surprising Pete Rose in 1999 with, “Are you willing to admit you bet on baseball?” was hard to watch television, Bob Costas inquiring last month of Sandusky, “Are you sexually attracted to young boys?” obliterated all parameters. Sandusky repeating the question, thinking it through, meandering through a disturbing explanation and waiting almost 17 seconds before definitively saying, “No,” only made the cringe factor grow.

If you’re old enough, you remember Trust from another era. He could be found in coaches who didn’t take advantage of children. If he saw that people were protecting a football program over a 10-year-old boy, he went to law-enforcement agencies and told them; he didn’t hide behind, “I told my superiors.”

Many good coaches remain. And however painful it was to hear the words “child molestation” and “Penn State coach” in the same sentence, the end result will hopefully be fewer kids having their innocence seized because of more aware and protective adults.

But what we’ve lost is Trust, and with it some of the moral clarity that sports, unlike so much else in life, always provided. You either won or lost. You either played fairly or not. Your school and university competed with class and dignity or they didn’t.

None of that is as clear as it once was.

Trust wasn’t just faith in our athletes and coaches; in sports it was always quantifiable by statistics and scores. Moral ambiguity wasn’t supposed to be part of his world.

Before November, after all, Paterno was the righteousness standard — the most deified coach since John Wooden. When we couldn’t rely on Joe Pa to tell police, when he admitted to us he had wished he’d “done more” to prevent “one of the great sorrows in my life,” we couldn’t believe in anyone anymore.

No, not all the good that came out of 2011 — the Cardinals’ pulsating comeback in the World Series, Butler and VCU nearly toppling Goliath in the NCAA tournament, a local kid named Lamont Peterson shocking the boxing world — could overshadow one somber obituary.

This is for Trust, whose last will and testament was for everyone. Coaches, kids, parents, fans and, yes, members of the media, because our responsibility to carry his message should never be greater:

If you know, you have to tell. And you have to tell when you know.

Not telling cannot be rationalized as protecting your source. Or thought of as ratting out a family member or co-worker. It’s called child-abuse prevention, and it supersedes your job, your siblings, your friendships and your religion.

Again: If you know, you have to tell. And you have to tell when you know.

It’s what Trust would have wanted.

 
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