Kirk Herbstreit, long time partner with Rece Davis as ESPN’s smarmiest duo of college football analysts, went on air on ESPN as an interviewee rather than as an analyst shortly after the indictments alleging child sexual abuse against retired Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky were unsealed in November of 2011. Adorned with an open collar shirt, no tie, and solemn demeanor, Herbstreit–himself a former Ohio State quarterback–declared on air that there was “no possibility he would allow his own kids to play for Penn State’s football program”, and that it was clear that “Joe Paterno should resign immediately”.
Joe Paterno was fired shortly afterwards by the politically appointed Penn State board of trustees. The media storm continued unabated in spite of his firing, and the NCAA handed down the stiffest penalties against a Division 1 or FCS university’s football program since Southern Methodist University’s 1987 “death penalty” for recruiting violations. However–the grand jury and then the Sandusky prosecutor subsequently cleared Paterno of all allegations. Then a Pennsylvania state lawsuit against the NCAA forced the organization to substantially backpedal, sharply reducing penalties in exchange for saving face and being able to claim publicly that justice still had been served. And finally the Louis Freeh report was found to be purely speculation not based in fact. Herbstreit’s comments on the retractions? There weren’t any.
Fast forward seven years. In July (2018), dozens of former Ohio State wrestlers came forward alleging sexual abuse or harassment in the school’s top tier wrestling program since as early as 1979. These allegations were particularly poignant coming right on the heels of similar allegations at Michigan State’s gymnastics program and the conviction of former MSU doctor Larry Nasser. Herbstreit’s comments on the allegations? Not one.
Ok, so this is wrestling and not football. Maybe Herbstreit doesn’t have to worry about his kids wandering from the Ohio State football facilities to the Ohio State wrestling facilities. To be fair, the main accused died in 2005. And maybe all that piety and sanctimoniousness has a super narrow focus.
Except that last week the Ohio State board of trustees suspended head football coach Urban Meyer after a scandal erupted over a former assistant football coach’s alleged systemic spousal abuse. Meyer himself is accused of allegedly covering up abuse allegations against the assistant coach (Zach Smith). For those who have lived under a rock the last fifteen years, Meyer is considered an elite coach certainly at Paterno’s level, if not beyond it.
Herbstreit’s comments on the new allegations? This time he actually had some (while wearing a neat tie and a suit during his interview). “Just a whirlwind, just unbelievable within 24 hours that you can be a head coach…be one of the best coaches in the nation…and within 24 hours it’s chaos, and for good reason,” he said. But–“slow down, let all the information come in,” he pleaded. “I want more information to come in. I want to see how Urban responds.”
What? No calls for Urban Meyer to resign immediately? No assertions that there was no way he would let his wife walk unattended into Ohio State’s athletic facilities? No phone calls to Louis Freeh to see if he is available for another railroading?
The NCAA, for its part, hasn’t said anything concerning either the wrestling scandal or the football scandal at Ohio State. Perhaps they are still busy following up on their stated intention to investigate Michigan State and its gymnastic program.
No matter–will Emmert and the Board of Governors levy a $60 million fine and take away several winning seasons of the Ohio State football program? Will it lose scholarships and playoff opportunities? Will it waive transfer restrictions for the Ohio State football team like was done to Penn State? I doubt it. None of the sanctions initially applied to Penn State will come to pass at Ohio State or Michigan State. The NCAA body has no enmity for the coaches in either football program. The NCAA will attempt to sidestep sanctions against the football programs by alleging a publicly tenuous connection between the universities’ alleged desire to protect their reputations and the conduct of the the wrestling or gymnastics programs. And most of all, the NCAA will be reluctant to engage in moral equivalence between the actions at Penn State and the actions at Ohio State or Michigan State, if nothing else to cover up the fact that the collegiate sports body may have no influence over, and thus no practical interest in, punishing criminal rather than scholastic athletics misdeeds at a member institution.
As for Herbstreit, it seems likely that we’ll continue to see duck and cover. But who knows? Maybe the analyst, who has built a self-described reputation as a “straight shooter” and a on-air personality not afraid to “state the facts”–even if it was concerning his alma mater–is doing a little soul searching. But probably not concerning Joe Paterno. After all, he’s dead.
9/1/2018 Update: The NCAA announced that no penalties would be assessed against Michigan State’s gymnastics, football, or basketball programs in response to the Nasser and other scandals. The NCAA acknowledged that its athletics rules had no application to the criminal matters at the university. Current Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman vouched for the football and basketball coaches (the women’s gymnastics coach Kathie Klages has left the school) . “Mark [Dantonio] and Tom [Izzo] represent the athletic department and Michigan State University with integrity.” Quite the difference from that experienced at Penn State. Then again neither Dantonio or Izzo was faced with terminal cancer and died before the NCAA and state courts ruled on guilt or innocence, or a university board of directors that prized its own reputation over that of the university’s.