The worst road trip you ever have to make as a sportswriter is to State College, Pennsylvania; you see Penn State on your schedule of assignments and groan. It’s not because it’s a terrible place—far from it. It’s because it’s so ridiculously difficult to get to. The tiny airport just off campus is nearly impossible to book flights into—it just got its first air-traffic-control tower—and ultimately you end up driving along blank stretches of the Pennsylvania Turnpike for hours. It is, as has been pointed out, a nation unto itself. Or at least it was until last Wednesday, when head of state Joe Paterno was deposed in an act that was momentous not just for Penn State but for sports as a whole. No one will ever again exert as much power over a team and its fans as Joe Paterno did with the Nittany Lions; the era of sports dictators is over. For better or worse, the rest of us run the show now.
What was strangest about what transpired after Paterno lost his job over the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse investigation is not that local writers would berate the trustee who announced the decision, nor that Penn State students would riot to show their support. Sports have always had an unfortunate tendency to warp moral judgment. What was unique about this situation was that writers and kids would angrily get behind a coach who’d lost 46 games in the last decade. Most modern fans don’t really identify with the people who play for or run their team so much as they consider those people temporary custodians of a higher ideal of championship greatness. Their expectations are infinite, and in most big-time college-sports towns, even the most previously beloved coach wouldn’t have survived a run of poor seasons like the ones Paterno put together in the early aughts.
Take the example of Urban Meyer at the University of Florida. Meyer was a great coach and was thought to run a generally clean program, which was one of the nation’s best year in and year out. Then, in 2010, he had a “bad” season, going 8-5. Fans were apoplectic about the alleged ineptitude of his offensive coordinator. The stress and pressure were so intense that Meyer feared that his heart would give out—he’d had a few scary medical problems already. So he quit. And this was after winning two national titles in six seasons as a coach!
The thing is, the Gators followers who said that Florida’s offensive coordinator was screwing things up weren’t wrong. The modern fan is too well informed, and the value of his fandom too lucrative, for any coach to slide by on goodwill. Fans’ understanding of the games they watch has not been accompanied by a commensurate change in understanding about the limits of human performance. If Urban Meyer—a veritable genius of his sport who’s probably worked 80 hours a week for the last 30 years—wasn’t up to snuff, who is? The fact is that communities like Penn State’s—forgiving fiefdoms that at least aspire to represent values besides “perpetual dominance”—can’t exist anymore. Penn State thought it was better than the rest of the world. And until it crossed the line so grotesquely in the Sandusky case, it actually was.