When a woman was assaulted by his teammate, a college football star refused to stay silent
Most parents hope they raise kind humans. Those that will show up for a friend in need without looking for a pat on the back for doing so. This story about a college student who was sexually assaulted in the ’70s by a popular and beloved college football player shows exactly what it means to be the kind of person who shows up for someone in need. Betsy Sailor was a student at Penn State University in the late ’70s when she accused a football player of assaulting her at knifepoint. Nevertheless, the football season continued and the players closed ranks around the star player leaving Sailor isolated and fearful. That is until Irv Pankey knocked on her door.
Pankey was a star football player at the time who would eventually go on to play in the NFL. He had everything to lose by showing support to a person who publicly accused his teammate of rape, but after hearing the ordeal play out in court, he couldn’t sit back quietly. Being a Black football player in 1978, it was risky for him to break ranks with his team, but his position in society is what helped him understand what it was like to feel isolated. Pankey told ESPN reporters Todd Junod and Paula Lavigne that he thought to himself, “She does not deserve to be a pariah. You will never have to walk alone again.”
And she didn’t. Pankey became Sailor’s protector walking her to class and making sure she felt safe. The two became inseparable during their time at Penn State. Pankey would invite Sailor to parties that he threw and the football players in attendance all knew and respected her. In the late ’70s it was still a rare thing for women to report sexual assault, and when they did, they were often not believed or worse, they were blamed for their own assaults based on how they were dressed or how much they had to drink. For a college student to stand up and accuse a star player of assault at a time where social outcasting was almost guaranteed to happen was a brave, bold thing to do, and the players at Pankey’s get-togethers understood that.
— Paula Lavigne (@Paula Lavigne)
Sailor says in ESPN Films’ new documentary “Betsy & Irv,” “I felt a bit of respect, and the respect came from, I believe, a woman that was taking on something quite large. And the majority of people that I was dealing with were Black football players that had certainly been up against battling big things in their lives.” Sailor recounts that Pankey’s kindness in showing up for her gave her a sense of freedom that she felt she otherwise wouldn’t have had.
The player that assaulted Sailor, Todd Hodne, was eventually kicked out of school and later went on to serve a life sentence in prison for various crimes including the murder of New York taxi driver Jeffrey Hirsch. It was revealed through investigations that Hodne had assaulted multiple other women, including while out on bail for Sailor’s assault.
Pankey’s act of kindness was bigger than the time the pair spent together on campus and it made a lasting impact on Sailor’s life. Irv Pankey went on to play for the Los Angeles Rams and Betsy Sailor worked in HR, but after 40 years apart, the admiration and love can be felt through the screen watching “Betsy & Irv.” It’s clear from their story that one act of kindness and showing up for someone in need can make all the difference in the world.
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