In what may well be the shortest coaching tenure in the history of collegiate athletics, the University of Tennessee on Sunday night officially rescinded its offer to hire Greg Schiano as its head football coach, just hours after news of the offer was leaked.
Schiano was shitcanned so quickly that he reportedly didn’t even make it onto the plane that was scheduled to take him from Columbus, where he currently works as defensive coordinator at Ohio State, to his introductory press conference in Knoxville.
The firing is remarkable not just for its quickness, but also for its substance. Schiano was fired because of his alleged role in a sexual assault cover-up decades ago. That kind of relitigation of past bad behavior almost never happens in the realm of sports.
In a criminal deposition that was unsealed last year, former Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary alleges that Schiano knew about defense coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexual assaulting young boys when Schiano was an assistant coach at the school. Sandusky’s serial predation of young boys — many of whom he met through his youth-focused charity — briefly brought the once-venerated Penn State program to its knees. Legendary head coach Joe Paterno was fired amid the scandal, as was university president Graham Spanier. Penn State was fined $73 million by the NCAA and Big Ten and $2.4 million by the Department of Education; it paid out another $100 million to Sandusky’s many victims. Paterno’s wins at the university were vacated as well, effectively erasing him from the official record books, and his statue was removed from outside the stadium. Sandusky, meanwhile, was sentenced to up to 60 years in prison.
Naturally, Schiano denied any knowledge of Sandusky’s abuse when the allegations surfaced last year, but any ambiguity about his role in the cover-up wasn’t enough to save him. The backlash against hiring Schiano was so fierce and swift that the University of Tennessee chancellor didn’t even have a chance to sign the official offer letter before it was revoked.
Schiano’s non-hiring (or firing, whichever you consider it) is the outlier, however. It marks one of the few times we as a society haven’t been willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a sports figure charged with sexual misconduct (or of being complicit in it, or overlooking it). Even now, when every other high-profile, public-facing institution — Hollywood, the news media, politics — is reckoning with sexual misconduct accusations from decades prior, we remain eerily comfortable cheering on sports figures accused of similar behavior.
While Kevin Spacey was removed from his upcoming film mere weeks before its release and Brett Ratner’s development deal with Warner Bros. was discontinued, Ben Roethlisberger and Jameis Winston are still employed as NFL quarterbacks, the most prestigious position in the country’s biggest sports league, though both have been accused of rape and sexual assault. And those are just the high-profile names — there are more than 40 active NFL players accused of domestic violence or sexual assault.
Similarly, while John Lasseter is in the midst of taking a six-month leave of absence at Pixar for his unwanted touching and kissing of co-workers, Kobe Bryant only recently retired from the NBA, long after a 2003 rape case that ended before trial with a rather unsatisfactory conclusion.
There are more examples. Too many to count, but here are a few of the most glaring: After pleading guilty to spousal abuse in 2001 — and paying a meager $200 fine and undergoing anger-management training — Jason Kidd played 11 more seasons in the NBA and is now head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in 1991 and served three years in prison at the height of his boxing career. Afterward, he returned to boxing, starred in The Hangover and staged a critically acclaimed one-man show on Broadway. He was also the star of a documentary by James Toback, a man whose sexual abuses rivaled those of Harvey Weinstein and will likely prevent him from ever making another film.
Why we remain willing to grant sports stars this exception while the careers of Louis C.K., Weinstein, Toback, Spacey and Bill Cosby (to name just a few) are effectively over is unclear and probably unknowable. But my theory is that it stems from the fact that we never feel intellectually connected enough to athletes to feel betrayed by their off-the-field actions.
Revelations about Spacey’s history of sexual abuse are so jarring because fans valued him for ineffable acting talent. C.K. fans have been so distraught (and defensive) about his sexual misconduct rumors proving true because they personally identified with his comedy about the absurdity of life, relationships and fatherhood.
Athletes, on the other hand, we only value for their physical skills. We objectify them in the purest sense of the word — they exist purely for our tribalistic, primal pleasure. And the moment their physical gifts diminish, we cast them aside for a new batch of players. Since we don’t appreciate them for their keen insights or artistic talents, it is much easier to ignore or dismiss their moral failings.
This disconnect is perhaps best exhibited by NFL fans’ seething anger about players kneeling during the National Anthem before games. Sports serve as a welcome respite from critical thinking for most people, so being forced to consider systemic racism and the NFL’s jingoist attempts to conflate football with military service infuriates them. They don’t care what their favorite player thinks — just how he plays.
But now, Schiano.
It could be that he simply wasn’t a good enough coach to overcome his toxic baggage. It’s not crazy, though, to think he might be a new bellwether, and that players and coaches who have committed sexual assault, sexual harassment and/or domestic violence will be banished from their sports the way Spacey and his ilk have seemingly been banished from the entertainment industry.
There is some slim precedent. Two people in particular come to mind: Former NFL running back Ray Rice, who has been a pariah since video surfaced of him punching his wife in the face, and Art Briles, who has proven unemployable since he was fired from Baylor University for covering up a string of sexual assaults during his tenure as head football coach.
Unlike in the cases of Bill Clinton and Casey Affleck, the cases against Roethlisberger and Bryant probably aren’t going to be relitigated or the duo banished from the field (for Roethlisberger) and Hall of Fame (for Bryant) — at least until the halo from their playing careers sufficiently wear off. But it does seem that if either of them were to do it again — or if other players and coaches were to do something similar — the potential now exists for swift punishment and a long stint of unemployment.
And if that happens, Greg Schiano’s legacy will be much more than that of just a disgraced football coach.