Penn State mess puts football in proper context
I will spend Sunday in a house of worship, searching for clarity and significance in a charged, chaotic world. The house of worship is a football stadium, and the pressurized, artificially intense universe it contains has the power to reveal the feats and failures of men on a grandiose scale.
It’s a potent setting, and the payoff is palpable: Every so often football gives us a defining moment – a bold coaching decision, a collective show of defiance, an inability to overcome one’s nerves or emotions.
As the drama plays out, we draw conclusions. We feel as though we know the strengths, weaknesses and personalities of the participants. And we cast them alternately as heroes and villains, resolving most of our arguments by pointing to the scoreboard.
This weekend, however, the notion of football-as-religion should make a lot of us feel very, very squeamish. As we absorb one of the most alarming sports scandals ever, the child-rape allegations at Penn State that led to the abrupt firing of the most victorious and venerated coach the college football world has known, how can our faith in this particular culture not be shaken?
For the record, I have zero patience for anyone who has tried to rationalize the response of Joe Paterno. He was told of unconscionable and (according to a grand jury) criminal behavior by former assistant Jerry Sandusky that took place in the Penn State football complex, and he failed to lead or inspire.
[ Video: Students, alum react to Joe Paterno’s firing ]
I don’t care if Paterno did what was required under the terms of his employment contract – waiting a day to tell his boss, then essentially pretending the matter didn’t exist for nine years – or that the grand jury chose not to charge him with failure to report his knowledge of the incident to law enforcement, as it did two of his superiors. And I’m not moved that Paterno seemingly did everything right for 46 years as Penn State’s coach in terms of propagating positive values and avoiding the temptation to cheat or short-change academics.
He built a tremendous legacy, but his name no longer stands for all that is supposed to be good about big-time collegiate athletics.
Instead, he’s the guy who put his program – and himself – above the needs of Sandusky’s helpless victims. That’s not going to change, no matter how many people might try to excuse Paterno’s behavior. If Bill Buckner can be indelibly stigmatized by a ground ball going through his legs, and “Wide Right” can be Scott Norwood’s epitaph, it’s not especially outrageous that a heretofore revered coach will feel the permanent stain of a horrible, horrible decision.
It was a defining moment, and it reverberated on a massive scale.
After Paterno was dismissed by the university’s board of trustees Wednesday night, thousands of Penn State students took to the streets of State College and chanted their support for the iconic coach. Some became violent, overturning a television news van, tearing down light poles and throwing rocks at police. It was a surreal scene, and my first reaction was one of disgust.
To most people I know who have kids – or nieces or nephews, or friends with kids – this isn’t a nuanced issue. We’re talking about allegations of child rape, and they should be treated with the utmost gravity. Not reporting one’s knowledge of such an incident immediately to law enforcement officials, and/or ensuring that the eyewitness in question (Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who later told the grand jury he’d witnessed Sandusky committing sodomy on a 10-year-old victim in the shower) do so himself, is completely unacceptable.
[ Related: Mike McQueary placed on administrative leave ]
It’s not an issue of legality; it’s one of morality, period. There is right and there is wrong, and Paterno was one of several people in positions of authority on the negative side of that equation.
And by the way, even if Paterno ends up contradicting the grand jury’s findings and insisting that he was merely told by McQueary that Sandusky and the alleged victim had engaged in naked “horseplay” in the locker-room shower, it won’t change my view in the least. If your first reaction to learning that an adult male and a 10-year-old boy were doing some nude wrestling on university property isn’t to pick up the phone and call the police, I don’t want you anywhere near my kids, let alone in a position of power over them.
Power, of course, was at the root of Paterno’s decision. Rather than to try to safeguard the boy in question, or the boys Sandusky might harm in the future, Paterno chose to protect his fiefdom. The football culture casts the coach as an unquestioned autocrat, and the more the coach wins, the stronger his command becomes. Given that Paterno has more victories than any coach in college football history, it’s not surprising that he acted as though the normal rules of society did not apply.
Even as the scandal worsened, Paterno made a power play, announcing Wednesday morning that he would retire at season’s end. It was a decision he made on his own, an attempt to preempt a more severe action by the board of trustees. So much for being a loyal servant to the university he supposedly loved. To the bitter end, Paterno acted like he was bigger than the school.
This just in: He isn’t. No man is. Penn State is a robust public institution that educates tens of thousands of students on an annual basis and is the center of a vibrant college town. Important research and instruction takes place there on a daily basis. It’s so much bigger than football, or athletics.
Tragically, Penn State’s brand is now sullied on an almost incomprehensible level. To many, it’s the place where alleged pedophilia and sexual assault are ignored and even enabled. Could anything be more horrible?
[ Related: Healing process begins for Penn State ]
I feel for Penn State’s alums, students (excepting the morons who rioted) and everyone else attached to the campus. As a proud Cal alum, I can’t even imagine how apoplectic I’d be if this had happened at the school I love.
Some have asked if I’d be galvanized to defend UC Berkeley administrators and/or coaches in such a scenario. Seriously? On the contrary, I’d eviscerate them, early and often, for tainting the institution I so revere. I’d be Cal’s worst nightmare. Trust me.
So yes, I’m very thankful this didn’t happen at my school, and I have to take issue with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who said in an otherwise reasoned and commendable press conference Thursday, “I believe some people have done things wrong, in this institution and in every other college.”
If this type of wrongdoing has been blown off at every other college, it’s time to blow up the whole system.
I do believe that our collegiate-sports landscape as a whole has been scarred by this scandal. And I think it reflects negatively upon the football culture in particular, extending to the NFL circles in which I travel. Pro coaches, too, can be masters of secrecy and subterfuge, and most of them appear to care far more about winning than anything else. So Paterno, in a sense, is one of them, only with less-intrusive media coverage (until the past few days, of course).
It gets worse: Watching the angry mob of students vent on CNN, I couldn’t help but feel as though a particularly twisted side of American society was being projected to an international audience.
Hi, we’re U.S. college kids. Children may have been raped on our campus, but our coach is the victim. Anyone got a match?
This may not be a fair assessment of prevailing public sentiment, and I suspect it isn’t, but images have the power to shape opinions. Let’s hope the images we see from now on are concerned citizens focused on holding our leaders accountable, bringing sexual predators to justice and counseling and protecting those in harm’s way. For everyone outraged by Paterno’s abrupt dismissal, I hope there are thousands of others who actively work to provoke change.
Certainly, the Catholic Church would seem to be an obvious target for continued vigilance. Over the past decade, we’ve seen so many reported instances of church officials reacting to these types of allegations by protecting the institution at the expense of ensuring that the perpetrators face legal consequences. In doing so, they put their own needs over those of the victims – who often are dissuaded from coming forward because of fear and shame – and dishonor the vast majority of noble and law-abiding members associated with their institution.
Ultimately, this is the same basic playbook from which Paterno operated. Given a chance to lead, he became a passive bystander. He put his faith in the sanctity of the scoreboard and didn’t grasp the game-changing and ruinous nature of keeping toxic behavior in-house. He lived in an insular world in which it was all about him and his unquestioned reign, and he ultimately made a grave mistake that impacted millions who’d entrusted their faith in his mythology.
Just like that – and nine years after the fact – the hero is a villain. And wherever you watch football this weekend, or on weekends to come, the house of worship will likely seem a lot less holy.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
The Colts will face-plant on their March to 0-16 by prevailing over the Jaguars in an ugly game at Lucas Oil Stadium. … Josh Freeman(notes) will produce a patented fourth-quarter comeback against the league’s top-ranked defense (no lie) to lead the Bucs to an upset of the Texans. … The Lions will field the better defense in a victory over the Bears at Soldier Field.
And remember, you can find all of my picks here – and receive the analysis behind them by registering for the Silver Insider at ridewithsilver.com. And while last week was a little rough in the predictions department, I’m still The Man when it comes to Locks of the Week, as Eddie George, Jason Cole and Danyelle Sargent can attest.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
San Francisco, where I’ll watch the Giants play at Candlestick Park without receiving a Croix de Candlestick button like back in the day.
LIES, LIES, LIES
3. Enraged by his hyper-paranoid belief that the Steelers disrespected quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) by playing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name” over the Heinz Field sound system last Sunday night, Ravens coach John Harbaugh ordered M&T Bank Stadium Officials to blast “That Smell” the next time Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin jogs onto the field.
FANTASY ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK
My buddy Malibu is back in the playoff picture after Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’s 20-point victory over Man Up Schaub U …, the team owned by his son, A-Man. And the dude who swayed the balance of familial power his way: Julio Jones(notes), with 35.3 points. In other words, my fingerprints were all over this victory. “Yeah, tremendous,” Malibu said sarcastically. “It was one week.” This week’s matchup with La Flama Blancas (1-8) will likely be a rough one for Sabbath (5-4), which got off to a rough start Thursday night thanks to uninspired performances by Chargers Philip Rivers(notes) and Mike Tolbert(notes) and Raiders wideout Jacoby Ford(notes). Malibu ignored my advice to play Eli Manning(notes) over Rivers and either Vernon Davis(notes) or Torrey Smith(notes) over Tolbert. On a positive note, Blancas started backs Steven Jackson and Knowshon Moreno(notes) and swing player Mike Williams (the Tampa Bay receiver, not the Seattle one) ahead of Adrian Peterson. Sounds like someone is trying to Suck For Luck.
One person who is absolutely in it to win it is Cal women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, whose Golden Bears open their season Sunday afternoon at No. 16 Rutgers. It’s a good thing Gottlieb has been preoccupied scouting the Scarlet Knights; otherwise, she might have taken the time to yell at me for insisting she bench Willis McGahee(notes) before last week’s matchup with Thank God No Lockout, which Bringin’ It Back (5-4) lost by a 23-point margin. “If we had played McGahee over (Jackie) Battle, we’d have won by one point,” she informed me, and she didn’t even sound that mad. Not that I would have minded – I kind of like it when she gets that “Give me a ‘T’ ” tone in her voice before a big game. Anyway, this week’s showdown with 5-4 EyeRunThis will be a tough one; Bringin’ It Back is already in a hole thanks to Michael Bush’s(notes) Thursday night performance (EyeRunThis also has Tony Romo(notes), Ben Tate(notes), Wes Welker(notes), Jacoby Jones(notes), Tony Gonzalez(notes), Ryan Torain(notes)). Gottlieb played McGahee opposite Adrian Peterson and went with three receivers (Plaxico Burress(notes), Reggie Wayne(notes), Julio Jones) instead of a third back (Shonn Green or Battle). Honestly, however, I’m much more interested in the lineup decisions she’ll be making on in New Brunswick on Sunday.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Pat Summitt, who begins her 38th season as Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach Sunday as the third-ranked Vols host Pepperdine in Knoxville. One of the best coaches of her era, in any sport, Summitt will soldier on despite an acknowledgment in August that she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia. She doesn’t want a pity party, so let’s just celebrate her excellence with smiles on our faces and empathy in our hearts.
THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
It’s a big weekend for Cal hoops all the way around, as the 24th-ranked Golden Bears men’s team opens its season Friday night against UC Irvine at Haas Pavilion. Coach Mike Montgomery’s team features senior guard Jorge Gutierrez and sophomore guard Allen Crabbe and should be invigorated by the presence of point guard Justin Cobbs, a sophomore transfer from Minnesota. The future looks bright as well: On Wednesday Montgomery announced a pair of signings for next year’s freshman class – guard Tyrone Wallace and forward Kaileb Rodriguez.
Speaking of Cal hoops, congratulations to my old college buddy Kevin Johnson, who was one of six student athletes honored by the NCAA with a Silver Anniversary Award. No, it wasn’t named after me, but KJ (and fellow recipient Sean Payton, for that matter) wouldn’t have complained. As per the terms of the award, the former NBA star and current Sacramento mayor has been out of college for a quarter-century now – and I know for a fact we met as freshmen at Cal. That all seems impossible, however, because there’s no way I can actually be that old.
Lest you think this week’s section involves nothing but net, I was excited by Cal’s field hockey triumph over No. 6 Stanford last Saturday, a 1-0 victory on the Cardinal’s home field that gave the Bears the NorPac Conference title. However, Shellie Onstead’s 11th-ranked Bears fell flat three days later, losing a 2-0 NCAA tournament play-in game to Atlantic 10 champion Richmond at Maxwell Field in front of a big crowd that included yours truly. Getting to watch the second half with Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour was especially fun given that she was a former Wake Forest field-hockey goalkeeper and thus actually understands the rules (whereas I watched a dozen high school games this year and am still as baffled as ever).
Finally, Cal’s women’s soccer team has a first-round NCAA tournament test at No. 11 Santa Clara Saturday afternoon, meaning the great Brandi Chastain will get to check out both of her former college teams. She’ll obviously root for the Broncos – her husband, Jerry Smith, is Santa Clara’s highly successful coach, and Chastain is a volunteer assistant.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Life is rough for everyone associated with the Chargers, especially after Thursday night’s defeat to the Raiders dropped San Diego to 4-5. Whether you’re A.J. Smith or the drunk denizen of Bolt Nation who woke up on an 81-year-old woman’s couch in Pacific Beach on Friday morning – seriously – there’s a hell of a hangover to confront. Here’s my favorite fan warbling one of your favorite Pearl Jam songs, and doing a really bad imitation of former San Diego resident Eddie Vedder, to the tune of “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”.
I seem to recognize your face
Ashen, Norv Turneresque, my team’s a disgrace and
Cannot find the current of thought to fix Rivers
Bad drafts are catching up with us
Packers and Ravens seem whole, I wish I’d seen the Bowl
But A.J.’s never taken us
Super Bowl dreams fade, fade away …
Super Bowl dreams fade, fade away …
I’ve got Tecates on my breath
Memories like Stan Humphries are slowly raising
Brees, you might recall, has a big, fat ring now
Next to a trophy on his shelf
We win by not winning it all, this town accepts this fate
But we won’t read that in the U-T
I just want to scream … hello …
My god it’s been so long, wish Marty would return
But now here we are, and here I am
Super Bowl dreams fade … away …
Super Bowl dreams fade, fade away …
Super Bowl dreams fade, fade away
Rivers threw the fade … away
Had fish tacos – stay … away
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