For a brief moment on Sunday, it appeared as if the University of Tennessee would hire Greg Schiano as its next football coach. When word of the impending decision filtered into the social media universe, a virtual firestorm erupted, the flames of which were extinguished only when the university walked away from the deal.
The brightest torch in the cyber mob that gathered to oppose Schiano belonged to Clay Travis, a sports personality who has built himself a sizable platform catering to SEC country. Travis is a Tennessee native who, when he’s not busy believing in “the First Amendment and boobs,” takes an avid interest in Volunteer football.
If you’re not familiar with Travis, think of a less talented version of Bill Simmons when the Sports Guy was still churning out regular copy. Travis has essentially appropriated Simmons’ shtick, but tailored it to his own audience. Though he’s not the best writer, Travis plays the role of contrarian very well. The Vanderbilt-trained lawyer is particularly adept at framing arguments and advocating them in a persuasive way.
Case in point: Travis’ long-running feud with ESPN. Travis has written several articles on his website, Outkick the Coverage, documenting ESPN’s hemorrhaging of subscribers and subsequent ratings decline. He’s linked the downward trends to the network’s perceived censorship of conservative voices and concession to political correctness. To buttress his narrative, Travis has contrasted ESPN’s treatment of Donald Trump critic Jemele Hill with the firing of Curt Schilling and suspension of Linda Cohn. He also broke the news of ESPN’s ridiculous decision to remove announcer Robert Lee from play-by-play duties for a University of Virginia football game after the protests in Charlottesville over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
Travis’ cogent explanations for the struggles of ESPN fail to acknowledge that the primary culprit of the network’s financial woes is not rooted in political ideology but economic reality: Americans have engaged in widespread cord-cutting as cable bills have gotten more expensive and cheaper alternatives have become more available.
But Travis isn’t interested in the truth, per se; he wants to sell a version of reality which appeals to an audience that increasingly feels alienated and silenced. Perhaps it’s accurate to call Travis a “darling of the alt right,” as Politico did in a recent profile; however, such labeling allows Travis’ detractors to marginalize him without engaging him and his valid critiques about the pervasiveness of liberalism in the sports media world.
With this context in mind, consider the attack that Travis initiated when Schiano was poised to accept Tennessee’s offer. Travis decided that the Ohio State Buckeyes defensive coordinator wasn’t worthy of the august position of head football coach at UT. Like any good litigator would do, after forming his conclusion Travis looked for facts to support it.
“We’re talking about a guy with a losing record in college football at Rutgers who got fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and just vanished from coaching until Urban Meyer decided to hire him as defensive coordinator. The most memorable thing he’s done with the Buckeyes so far is hit a bicyclist on campus.”
Not only is Schiano a mediocre football coach. In Travis’ estimation, he’s also an enabler of child abuse:
Greg Schiano knew about child rape at Penn State and kept quiet according to court testimony. Disgraceful of Vols: https://t.co/co4v7E9VYa
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) November 26, 2017
Before we wade into the Penn State accusations, let’s first tackle Schiano’s coaching credentials. Indeed, Schiano finished his Rutgers tenure with a less than impressive 68-67 record. However, context matters. Schiano inherited a moribund program that shared the Big East basement with Temple until the Owls were exiled from the conference. During his eleven-year run at the school, Schiano rebuilt the program into an occasional national power that was attractive enough to secure an invitation from the Big Ten during the most recent round of conference reshuffling. He recruited Florida well, which put him ahead of the curve among rival programs in the Northeast region. The high point of his stay in New Jersey was undoubtedly Rutgers’ upset win over Bobby Petrino and the #3 ranked Louisville Cardinals.
There’s no sugarcoating Schiano’s experience as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His domineering, hard-charging act wore thin quickly in the professional ranks. Within two seasons, he was deservedly dismissed.
Nonetheless, Schiano’s professional trajectory is a perfect example of the ways in which narratives distort perspective. Ten years ago, Schiano would have been a welcome choice in Knoxville. In the intervening decade, did he forget how to coach? Of course not. Schiano’s coaching acumen didn’t change. Fans’ perception of Schiano’s coaching ability shifted.
And that brings us to the more sensitive portion of the Greg Schiano resume, which is the accusation that he was part of the conspiracy of silence at Penn State that provided a safe haven for Jerry Sandusky. Clearly, the allegation resonated on Tennessee’s campus:
The Rock on UT's campus. pic.twitter.com/aG3BXrkKOW
— Louis Fernandez Jr (@LouisWBIR) November 26, 2017
State politicians even weighed in on the matter:
Our Tennessee standards mean something, and a Greg Schiano hire would be anathema to all that our University and our community stand for. I sincerely hope that these rumors are not true, because even serious consideration would be unacceptable.
— Eddie Smith (@RepEddieSmith) November 26, 2017
When analyzing the claims surrounding Schiano, it becomes clear that “Tennessee standards” do not include space for due process. For a basic understanding of Schiano’s alleged involvement in the Penn State scandal, read this article from Philly.com and this Washington Post story. Basically, former Penn State assistant-turned-whistleblower Mike McQueary named Schiano when asked if he knew of any other assistants who were aware of Sandusky’s predatory behavior. In his testimony, McQueary related an exchange he had with former PSU defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Bradley had allegedly told McQueary of a time when Schiano confided in Bradley after witnessing Sandusky engaged in unspecified inappropriate behavior. Both Schiano and Bradley denied any knowledge of Sandusky’s criminal activities.
In the court of public opinion, it apparently does not matter. On the strength of a deposition provided by McQueary for an insurance company seeking to extricate itself from financial liability for Penn State’s payouts to Sandusky’s victims, Schiano has been deemed an accessory to the crime. His denial does not matter. His inability to question his accuser does not matter. And the context in which the testimony was offered, as well as the hearsay nature of the claim, most assuredly does not matter.
Imagine if one of your former employers was embroiled in a massive scandal. What if the eventual whistleblower, who worked for the business years after you left, referenced your name in a deposition and you had no way to defend yourself outside of a blanket denial? Would you accept an outcome that clouded you in guilt and limited your future career opportunities?
After years of institutional neglect and concealment of sexual abuse, we thankfully live in a world in which allegations are taken seriously and victims are treated with care rather than contempt. However, we must avoid the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction. A claim cannot automatically equal conviction.
I’ve written about Penn State before, and I’ve seen from the comments the article inspired that some folks have very little tolerance for any opinion that deviates even slightly from their own point of view on this topic. I completely understand their feeling, and I appreciate that such condemnation is part of the bargain when taking on a third rail issue. Nevertheless, before you rush to share your righteous indignation, I want you to take a look at one last tweet Travis wrote about Schiano:
Lynch mob? Did I also lead a lynch mob against Derek Dooley & Butch Jones? Schiano isn’t a good enough coach or a good enough fit for Vols. A bad choice at a time when this hire needs to unite everyone. Should I have blindly accepted a bad hire or fought it? I fought it. And won. https://t.co/XUSSa8Qh9f
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) November 27, 2017
Travis dredged up the tenuous allegation implicating Schiano in the Penn State scandal solely to submarine the coach’s chance at the Tennessee job. It was part of an all-out social media campaign which included publicizing the athletic director’s phone number. But make no mistake: Schiano’s real crime in the eyes of Travis and Volunteer partisans is that he isn’t good enough in their collective mind to lead the Tennessee program back to SEC relevance.
So, when you cast your stones from the moral high ground on which you’ve pitched your tent, make sure to save a few for Clay Travis. He may not have conspired to cover up the Penn State scandal, but he cynically exploited the outrage its invocation generates.