Betsy & Irv challenges tropes with athlete’s positive example

Betsy & Irv promo – Courtesy of ESPN+

It is not often that we hear stories of male athletes doing the right thing. The media relishes telling stories of an athlete’s downfall. From Lance Armstrong to Aaron Hernandez to Henry Ruggs, tales of athletes making poor choices make up common news stories. But Betsy & Irv, a new documentary short film released by ESPN in April, presents a different story and shows what can happen when an athlete uses his status and power for good.  

Betsy & Irv tells the story of Betsy Sailor, who, in 1978, was a 21-year-old senior at Penn State. Sailor was sexually assaulted by a member of the Penn State football team. The film describes the violent assault, which lasted almost two hours, and how it impacted Sailor, going into detail about her perpetrator’s arrest and the ensuing trial.

But the assault at the hands of a Penn State football player is not the film’s central narrative. The story is about another player on the team: Irv Pankey.

Pankey was sitting in the courtroom along with several other Penn State Football team members the day Betsy Sailor testified about her rape. Pankey and the other team members were there to support their teammate, the accused rapist Todd Hodne. But something shifted for Pankey as he listened to Sailor testify. “She was bold enough to stand and get up there and speak on her behalf at a time where, on any college campus, women weren’t reporting rapes,” Pankey says in Betsy & Irv.

Pankey decided he had to do something to help Sailor. A few days after she testified, he walked over to her dorm room, knocked on her door, and when she opened it, he held out his hand. He said, “My name is Irv Pankey, and I just wanted to let you know that I was in the courtroom and I listened to what you had to say, and I believe every word you said.”

The film describes what unfolded after that encounter. Pankey did more than tell Sailor that he believed her—he also made sure that, for the rest of her time at Penn State, he was by her side. He invited her to parties, included her in football events, and made sure that she knew what happened to her was not a “football thing. It was a Todd thing.”

Pankey said, “She would have been a pariah. She got a Penn State football player in trouble. I had to go get her. I don’t know why…I just knew she needed someone to say she would be ok.”

Between the time of his conviction and the start of his jail sentence, he [Hodne] assaulted six more women. He spent the remainder of his life in prison.

Sailor describes her amazement at Pankey’s kindness. His protection “gave me a bit of freedom that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” Instead of being vilified for naming a Penn State football player, Pankey made sure Sailor was shown respect by the other players on the team.

Todd Hodne was eventually found guilty of raping Betsy Sailor. Between the time of his conviction and the start of his jail sentence, he assaulted six more women. He spent the remainder of his life in prison. Betsy graduated from Penn State and moved on with her life. Irv Pankey was the 50th pick in the 1980 NFL draft. He played 13 seasons in the league, eleven with the Los Angeles Rams, and two with the Indianapolis Colts.

A short 15 minutes in length, Betsy & Irv shows the very best of what an athlete can be; it shows how a star athlete can use his power and privilege to change someone’s life for the better.