Joe Paterno guided his football teams to some pretty impressive performances. Football, we all know, is a seasonal preoccupation – except in upper New England where winter isn’t just a word surrounding Christmas, and where basketball is the main focus, primarily, I suspect, because it’s not necessary to plow two feet of snow off the area between the hoops.
Football, in much of the nation, means money, and JoePa’s boys certainly made certain a healthy serving of it landed beneath the home goal posts in State College, Pa. – enough so that his final contract was $5.5 million and, one hoped, worth every penny.
From a long way off in time and miles, I knew Joe Paterno was a name to be reckoned with, right up there with Bear Bryant, Ara Parseghian, and Vince Lombardi. And he insisted his players also maintain academic performance, making Penn State a school to which anyone interested in a good education should apply.
A half-century of his leadership was pride-instilling, a pride he certainly shared as he reportedly contributed heavily to the university for a variety of purposes. No doubt JoePa was concerned with the university’s ability to provide a well-rounded education to its students. Also no doubt he gained a potfull of tax deductions with those donations, but what the heck – he was a hero.
Stuff happens in a small town – I grew up in one. A few individuals become models for statuary, or at least a plaque at the town hall, lots of people wonder how that happened, and nearly everyone knows nearly all the scandals they don’t talk about while visiting other towns. Or about which they merely nod knowingly when someone from another town suggests, “He must know something about somebody to get away with that,” without either conversational participant actually putting a name to “that.”
And Penn State is, after all, a small town.
In a small town, when an illicit activity continues for decades, there is no way word doesn’t get around. The other statuary models – in this case at least one school president, at least three coaches, a head of campus police, probably a couple other department heads and almost undoubtedly some students – especially some football players – knew something was going on – not necessarily what was going on, but something.
And to have achieved the lofty statures at least the major participants had achieved, they had to know eventually the word would leak out. But their arrogance of power kept them convinced no one would mess with their hero, and they would be wrapped in JoePa’s protective shroud. “America’s winningest coach,” and the school that basked in his gold-producing glory, would go on winning and basking.
We The People, in general, idolize our warriors as a group, and our generals by name. And JoePa was a general, with all the privileges and benefits accruing thereto. Whatever he did was for the good of the team, and what was good for the team was good for the school’s coffers, and we didn’t really care how he got it done or who was trampled in the process.
I’m guessing a lot more press knew about the allegations than published stories about it. The reporter who finally broke the story had to move to a paper willing to publish; the one she worked for while gathering the foundational information refused to sully Joe’s name.
A friend pointed out to me, in telling some tales of the Battle of Gettysburg, that when a soldier on the line was shot, the bullet was fired by another ground-pounder. But when a general was killed, it was a sharpshooter’s rifle that delivered the fatal round. The credit is not assessed to glorify the shooter, but rather the shootee.
I imagine some kids could have refused to attend Penn State. I suppose some faculty could have refused to teach there, and let their reasons leak to the press.
Post-secondary education is a business like any other business. One of its products is education; One is football. But the institution’s primary purpose is to post profits; colleges that don’t make money fold up and disappear. Those leaders who head up successful profit-posting are paid well and sheltered from the prying eyes of bad publicity. Most colleges and universities deliver a product for which most of its leaders are well paid, and it’s a fact that football often is the most profitable of their products.
In another venue I might argue about football’s place in academe, but football was not what caused those kids to be abused, and football was not what covered up the crimes. The kneejerk reaction might be to kill the football program, but I have never favored mass punishment. Thousands of PSU family members before and to follow, had and will have had no part in the coverup.
When something bad happens in a company, any company, the first reaction is to circle the wagons and deny that anything wrong occurred. And if it did, it was through no fault of those in charge. And if it was their fault, they didn’t intend to hurt anyone. And in some cases, forget the foregoing and concentrate on the money they made.
The injury to Sandusky’s victims was and is not as much in the physical attack, though that certainly would be painful enough, but in the demonstration of the impunity of money and its power.
The courts will, I trust, assign and grade blame for what was allowed to go on for so long.
But let’s limit the damage to those who have been afflicted and those who did the afflicting. It’s bad enough that future graduates – even football players – will be labeled as being alumni of the school that once had some rotten leadership. There is no need to kill the program and burden the innocent with that, as well.
Photo by Mike Pettigano
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