In 2003, the Baylor University men’s basketball coach, Dave Bliss, wanted to manipulate the details of the murder of one of his players. (Read that again: “manipulate the details of the murder of one of his players.”) The dead young man, Patrick Dennehy, had a lot of cash on hand (that Bliss had given him against NCAA rules) and was not on scholarship (Bliss was paying that, too), so the coach wanted assistant coaches say the player was a drug dealer and that is why Dennehy was flush with money.
The player had been murdered by one of his own teammates. Bliss corralled his assistant coaches and laid out a plan: Dennehy was a drug dealer, no money came from the coaching staff, lie to investigators, get away with it.
One of the assistants, Abar Rouse, had a crisis of conscience, recorded the meeting and the truth came out. That was brave… and had consequences: Rouse never coached again and now works for a federal prison in Texas. (*Bliss got a coaching job in 2015 at Southwest Christian University. He resigned when a documentary on the scandal aired on Showtime in 2017.)
I thought it was the worst college sports scandal, the grossest breach of ethics we would see in college sports. I thought it was the saddest thing I could think of from people charged with the development and education of young adults.
Less than a decade later, I was proven to be wrong.
Jerry Sandusky smacked society across the face when a grand jury report revealed his decades of child rape and molestation. The prestige and aura of Penn State football clouded Sandusky’s crimes. The walls of the mighty athletic department had protected a former coach instead of vulnerable children, most of whom were in awe of that prestige and aura.
Nothing could get lower than the rape of little boys, right? This was rock bottom.
Until it wasn’t… How about the rape epidemic in the Baylor football team (52 rapes in four years!?)
And the bar has been lowered yet again.
Larry Nassar -- USA Gymnastics physician and team doctor/clinician at Michigan State University -- molested and assaulted more than 150 girls. (He is getting his, too, including this today.)
While Nassar may be the base of a brutal iceberg, the chilly waters of East Lansing, Michigan, have frozen a lot of vileness into the culture of Spartans Athletics, including rape accusations allegedly committed by basketball and football players and covered up by coaches and administrators.
Those kinds of icebergs take generations to form.
They require commitment, devotion, loyalty. People’s careers and lives are woven into them. They become a culture that protects the brand instead of the lives and well-being of real people. They become slogans instead realities. (“We Are Penn State!” “Go Sparty!”)
The walls around those cultures aren’t coming down. They don’t become more transparent. Rather, when threatened by a wayward miscreant (Bliss, Sandusky, Nassar), the walls around those cultures get higher and thicker.
And, let’s be honest… there are bad people out there and ugly things will happen.
But, if they happen in the darkness that high, thick walls create, a bad person transforms into a monster. If they happen in the shine of aura, prestige and slogans, they turn into epidemics.
Ultimately, that isn’t simply the responsibility of a university president, or an athletic director (though they do hold their share of responsibility.) It is the responsibility of a community, of an alumni and fan base, of all the people – directly connected or spiritually connected – to the creation of the iceberg.
This morning, I read this piece from Deadspin’s Lauren Theisen. It is a response to sports column from the Lansing State Journal – a column that is part of the community complicity that is inevitable in these disgusting breaches of trust. The response is dead-on.
The columnist, Graham Couch, is clearly a homer. And, that’s OK when it comes to game plans, and referees. It’s not OK when it comes to a culture that incubates rapists and liars.
Am I going too far? Read the comments and you tell me…
The university president isn’t berating Theisen. The athletic director isn’t blasting the process. Rather, it is the fans and alumni who are defending the iceberg.
It is a community with misplaced loyalty and distorted values that can’t see through the darkness to protect the vulnerabilities of real people.
And, if you think this is exclusive to college sports, you are wrong.
2019 FIFA Women's World Cup: Media, Fandom, and Soccer's Biggest Stage is available online from Palgrave Macmillan. (Hardback available in September 2021.)
Molly Yanity, Ph.D.