Giger: PSU AD makes big mistake addressing ‘409’ issue on Twitter, but school also caught in Catch-22 on how to honor Paterno
Penn State had an embarrassing weekend from a PR standpoint on two fronts, as athletic director Sandy Barbour infuriated legions of fans with an ill-advised tweet, plus some fans who showed up to the Bryce Jordan Center to buy tickets for Saturday’s men’s basketball game were turned away for a truly absurd reason.
First, the tweet heard round the (Penn State) world, and why Barbour may never be able to live it down.
The Nittany Lion hockey players wore stickers that read “409” on their helmets during Friday’s game, commemorating Joe Paterno getting back all of his victories in last week’s NCAA settlement. Barbour was criticized by fans on her Twitter account for the gesture being insensitive to victims of the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
In an incredibly unwise move, Barbour decided to respond to one of the critical tweeters (that’s almost never a good thing).
“Agree with you. Inappropriate and insensitive. It’s been corrected,” she tweeted.
That correction came Saturday as the men’s basketball team reportedly was to wear T-shirts with “409” on them before their game against Purdue, but did not.
To many, the “inappropriate and insensitive” comment came off as a direct objection to the school honoring Paterno’s victory total. And that, to the Paterno loyalists who have spent more than two years waiting to see the 111 vacated wins restored, amounted to blasphemy by Barbour.
The new AD, who’s been on the job only six months after previously working at Cal, clearly had no idea what she was getting herself into by wading into the issue with any sort of controversial opinion. In turn, she has been blasted by fans on social media and Internet message boards, with some even suggesting she should be fired or step down for the comments.
At the very least, Barbour is guilty of breaking the No. 1 rule of Twitter: Think before you hit send.
The social media site is filled with people who love nothing more than to express their anger in 140 characters, in many cases in an attempt to rile up other tweeters and get a hostile response.
For all the good it can serve, Twitter also is a giant wasteland of viciousness that gives anyone a forum to share opinions.
Barbour should have known better than to express her opinion on the “409” sticker issue in that forum. She admitted as much Monday when she apologized on State College radio station WBLF.
“I want to apologize for the tweet,” Barbour said on the air. “This is far too important a subject to vet … in social media. I’ll use my own words. It was inappropriate and insensitive of me to do that from a tweet standpoint.”
The problem for Barbour, though, isn’t that her opinion came out on Twitter. It’s that she expressed an opinion that appeared to go against supporting Paterno.
That is the worst thing she could do, in the eyes of many Penn State fans who still idolize the late coach and hold the belief deep in their core that he never did anything wrong.
Problem is, this country is filled with more people who hold the exact opposite belief about Paterno – that a person in his position of authority didn’t do enough to stop Sandusky.
Therein lies the Catch-22 that Barbour and Penn State officials have to deal with when it comes to Paterno.
Barbour knows this all too well, and she admitted it on the radio show Monday.
“I knew before I came to Penn State that 409 meant success with honor, that 409 means far more to this community and this university than wins,” Barbour said.
“But having come from the outside, I know that’s not necessarily what everyone else knows and thinks. And frankly, in my five months here, I have learned so much more about Penn State and what an incredible place it is. I want the rest of the world to see and feel the things I have seen, and I thought it was incredibly important in this moment that we pause to make sure we got it right.”
So what does getting it right mean when it comes to honoring Paterno? And what ramifications will there be in Barbour’s and the school’s attempt to get it right?
Again, that’s the Catch-22 Penn State faces.
If it appeases the legions of fans who want Paterno honored – be it by returning his statue to Beaver Stadium or some other way – Penn State would take a big step toward righting what many people see to be a wrong.
But consider for a moment what will happen if, for instance, the statue does go back up. Is Penn State prepared for what undoubtedly would be enormous backlash from around the country, from those who don’t hold Paterno in high regard and/or child sex abuse victim advocacy groups?
The outcry surely will include sentiments such as, “Penn State still doesn’t get it,” or, “The school is showing again it only cares about football and winning.”
Hammering home that point, hockey coach Guy Gadowsky has been heavily criticized the past few days from people who believe it was insensitive for his team to wear the “409” stickers. And that’s just stickers, not something so controversial as the statue.
Penn State doing right by Paterno fans means aggravating a mob of others and bringing further criticism on the school. But not doing right by Paterno’s legacy would mean further aggravating the people who buy the tickets and merchandise and keep Penn State athletics in business.
Barbour said Paterno will be honored but noted, “It will happen over time.”
“We now have a moment, and there will be other moments along the way, to figure out how we honor Coach Paterno,” she said on the radio. “It’s very important that we are very deliberate and get that right.
“The most important reason is what he has meant to this university. And we have to get it right in a way that not only honors him and celebrates him, and if we have the opportunity to educate others on who he was, I think that’s a great thing.”
SUBHD: Basketball issue
The BJC is not a good basketball arena – too cavernous and the fans are too far from the court – so there’s every reason for Penn State to try and do things to create a better atmosphere.
But the school went too far Saturday.
Some fans who showed up to buy tickets were turned away and told the game was sold out, even though the crowd of 8,949 was well below the 15,261 capacity. The fans not only were denied tickets, some weren’t refunded their $5 for parking.
The school released this statement Sunday night:
“In an attempt to create an intimate atmosphere in the Bryce Jordan Center, and provide as much as a home court advantage as possible, we implemented a decision made before the season to not open the upper level curtain on game day. Capacity in the lower bowl was reached after gates opened on Saturday, which led to approximately 30 fans being turned away at the box office.”
So let’s get this straight: Penn State basketball, which has long been irrelevant to so many sports fans in this region, was so rigid in its policy that it couldn’t find a way to get 30 more people who actually wanted to watch a team that’s winless in Big Ten play into the arena.
That is ridiculous.
Penn State did apologize to the fans who were turned away in its statement. It also offered this in return:
“We will offer any fan that was turned away on Saturday two (2) complimentary tickets to the 2014-15 regular season home game of their choice, based on availability. Additionally, any fan who purchased parking and was unable to attend the game will receive a $5 refund to cover this cost. These fans can claim both their complimentary tickets and parking refund by calling 1-800-NITTANY, weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.”
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.