The real lesson from Penn State

Sean O'Neill - More than the score (Tom Bateman/AQ)

This has been the year of the college football controversy in America. Thankfully, we’ve spent as much time discovering these “scandals” (The tattoo five at Ohio State, Jim Tressel, Reggie Bush, USC’s stripped national title, Nevin Shaprio, Cecil Newton, Stanley McClover, Josh Luchs, Willie Lyles) as deconstructing the silliness of them (Taylor Branch in The Atlantic).

And then the Penn State sex scandal broke, and this has nothing to do with the NCAA and the failure to keep boosters at bay. This has to with the failure of allegedly keeping children safe.

And we can blame this mess on the power of college football.

If you’ve read this far, you probably know the details about what happened in Station College, Pennsylvania.

(And if not, introduce yourself to Sara Ganim of The Patriot-News.)

Imagine a world where a retiring professor receives in his package an office and complete access to the all of the university services. It’s as preposterous as a kid running away from home, but still wanting an allowance.

But that’s what Jerry Sandusky was afforded after retiring from his position as defensive coordinator in 1999. This helped enable him to perform the crimes with young boys that he allegedly committed.

(The former Penn State assistant coach from 1969-99 has been charged – not convicted, it’s an important distinction – with 40 counts of sexually abusing eight boys during a 15-year period.)

Imagine a world where the biggest classroom in a institution for higher learning, is a place called Beaver Stadium and holds over 107,000 people – the second biggest stadium in North America, where 20 of the 25 largest sports arenas are homes to college football teams – and the only knowledge gained is if they can convert on third down against an Ohio State blitz.

And imagine a world where a man who by all reports looks like he enabled this alleged behavior to go on, who knew of these despicable crimes but only informed higher-ups at his place of employment instead of calling the cops, was cheered outside his home like William & Kate on their wedding day.

But the amazing scene of long-time Nittany Lions football coach/most-important-man-on-campus-since-1966 Joe Paterno standing outside of his home last Wednesday night with his wife Sue in his arms waving to a group of sycophants outside of his home and saying, “Right now, I’m not the football coach. And I’ve got to get used to that,” speaks to the real issue.

Which brings us to the issue of being a fan. The definition of fanatical (filled with excessive and single-minded zeal) corrupts the understanding by current Penn State students and the alumni base.

This man should not be supported for being a hero – like those outside his home and the disgraceful student “reporters” at the Board of Trustees press conference and the students who were acting like kids, on the streets tipping over vans all in the name of protecting Paterno State football – he should be condemned for not doing enough to stop this behavior and protect the kids who were harmed.

The 84-year-old Paterno is a legitimate icon who belongs, at worst, in the discussion for the Mount Rushmore of college coaches with Bryant, Robinson, McKay, Paraseghian, Bowden, Hayes, Neyland and Schembechler.

The Penn State athletics program, according to an ESPN Outside The Lines report, generated a surplus of almost $19.5 million in 2009.

The athletic director, school president and lionized head coach, among others, choose to protect the golden goose instead of protecting these golden children.

One of my dear friends, who doesn’t particularly care for sports, told me earlier this year that “university is for learning.” While I thought the sentiment was more idealistic than realistic – because I’d argue a large percentage of people go to university to major in booty-chasin’, video games and chillin’ on daddy’s dime – all of the virtues that athletics can bring to a university, like a sense of camaraderie and an understanding of competition, have now been corrupted and the question about its real purpose has to be asked.

With all of this established only one conclusion can be made: college football in the United States is too big for its own good.


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