The Slatest

Keith Olbermann Is a Smug Elitist. But He Wasn’t Entirely Wrong About Penn State.

Keith Olbermann: not a Nittany Lion fan

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

What kind of jerk criticizes students who raise money for kids with cancer?

Keith Olbermann makes no secret of the disgust he harbors for Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal; in January, he declared the NCAA and PSU “the worst in sports.” His well-documented disdain for the institution is probably what inspired a Penn Stater to mention him Sunday in a proud tweet about the 2015 Penn State Dance Marathon, an annual fundraiser (known on campus as THON) that raises money for children with cancer.

“We Are!” refers to the Nittany Lion chant “We are … Penn State.” And Four Diamonds—an organization that helps families pay for cancer treatment, funds research, and more—is the recipient of the THON money.

Olbermann responded to the “We are” tweet with one word: “…Pitiful.”

Soon Penn State students and others were attacking him, and he was hitting right back.

The pompous, elitist tirade earned him a suspension from ESPN. (Olbermann, if you’re wondering, went to Cornell—ever heard of it?) As a Penn State alumna who knows the difference between your and you’re, I’m pleased to see him get spanked on this one. But I also think that he wasn’t entirely wrong to roll his eyes at attempts to use THON to deflect criticism about the university.

THON is billed as “the largest student-run philanthropy in the world.” Groups and organizers spend the fall semester and first month of the spring semester preparing for it. On designated “canning” weekends, clubs, Greek organizations, and other clusters of students fan out from State College, Pa., to stand at street corners and collect money. At the main event, held this past weekend, more than 700 students serve as “dancers” who go 46 hours without sitting or sleeping. The idea, as I understand it, is to give the dancers a taste of the pain that kids with cancer endure.

It’s a noble goal. But when I was on campus, as THON got closer each year, the scent of self-congratulations grew stronger. The THON slogan is FTK—“for the kids.” In my more cynical moments, I sometimes thought that it should be “FTT”—“for the T-shirt.”

In the Deadspin comments, another alum put it nicely:

THON had great results, but to me it always seemed to serve as a vessel for fraternities, sororities, and those that crave attention to pat themselves on the back. There are a lot of people who participate selflessly, but the most vocal element are those that want the attention for “doing a great thing.” To boot, most of the fundraising doubles as a social/ pledge event for a lot of the greeks. TL; DR - great results, questionable means.

The results are great, and many of the participants are entirely sincere. But still, some students, especially Greeks, use it to excuse a lot of things: You can’t criticize fraternities—we raise money for kids with cancer!

It’s unfair for Olbermann to condemn the entire university because of the child sex abuse scandal (or because a few students on Twitter made grammatical mistakes that are widely accepted on the platform). Though the campus culture went too far in worshipping football, the ones to blame for the abuse are Jerry Sandusky and the handful of men who shielded him—including, yes, Joe Paterno. I railed about my alma mater’s moral hypocrisy after the scandal broke, and I remain furious about it. But it’s also illogical and disingenuous for Penn Staters to use THON as a shield against criticism. What did the original tweeter expect from Olbermann? I can’t imagine that she genuinely thought he would say, “You’re right. I’ve been unjust all along.”

Despite his presumably ESPN-mandated apologetic tweet, I doubt that Olbermann will emerge from his suspension with a greater respect for the school. And he’s right not to change his mind based on a fundraiser.