Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Say It Ain't So, Joe

The breathtaking arrogance of Coach Joe Paterno's statement that he would continue to coach the Nittany Lions football team can only be met with a dropped jaw. While confessing to being "absolutely devastated by the developments in this case", Paterno nevertheless states that he will soldier on as head coach until season's end. Astonishingly, he manages to shoot a specific barb at the Board of Trustees, presuming to offer advice that they "should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address."

No, they really don't, and for Paterno to even think to throw his weight around indicates, alas, his complete inability to comprehend the magnitude of his errors. At best a case can be made that Paterno acted within the legal boundaries of behavior when confronted with accusations that his longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, had forcibly sodomized a ten year-old child on Penn State University grounds. But no legitimate case can be made that Paterno behaved in any way that anyone with a moral compass would regard as humane or decent. How this man could possibly have the nerve to think about taking the sideline against Nebraska this weekend in light of the week's revelations about his appalling role in enabling Sandusky's predatory instincts, words cannot summon the outrage. He should be wearing sackcloth and ashes, begging anyone willing to listen for forgiveness for having allowed a monster to run amok for at least a decade. Instead, he swaddles himself in the cocoon of supporters who appear to think the Kool-Aid tastes quite fine, thanks, as he shoots off press releases without staring the disbelieving in the face.

Regardless of whether Paterno does indeed rally the Happy Valley faithful for one victory lap after having become the winningest college coach, this is an ignominious end for a fine man, one who was arguably the last of a special breed in big-time college football: the coach who saw his mission as shaping and educating the minds of young men as much as winning national titles. To distant admirers--and I count myself in that group--Paterno stood for something that I fear large Universities embody less and less with each passing year, namely, a commitment to principle. When the Jim Tressell scandal at Ohio State broke this year, nobody who had been paying any attention to the corrupt state of college football could really have been surprised, except that the ensnared head coach was one who wore sweaters and projected an image of integrity.

Like the rest of big-time college football, it was only an image, a fig leaf covering a morally bankrupt system. There was more than a hint of wink-wink nudge-nudge in the bouncy collegiate career of Cam Newton, who despite being involved in a cheating scandal at Florida nevertheless managed to finish his career leading the Auburn Tigers to the national championship. Somehow Newton managed to play for three colleges during his NCAA eligibility despite clear evidence to anyone willing to pay attention that he likely deserved expulsion from the first school, and behaved in a manner unbecoming any University in offering up his services to the highest bidder in what has since been called the "pay for play" scandal. (Two scandals for one college athlete--not bad!)

Compare this to the NCAA position thirty years earlier on running back phenom Marcus Dupree, who had left the University of Oklahoma in 1983 in an attempt to break with head coach Barry Switzer. The NCAA ruled him ineligible for two full seasons; Dupree's awkward attempted leap to the pros never panned out, and his claim to fame is being the subject of an ESPN documentary, The Best That Never Was. Such an action today, along with the so-called "death penalty" levied against Southern Methodist University, is inconceivable. Everyone is in on the joke, and most serious college football fans appear not to care terribly much. Even the Miami Hurricanes scandal, along with the shenanigans at Ohio State and the unsavory behavior of Newton, seems not to have made a blip on anyone's ethical radar screen. Yes, they get paid indirectly. Yes, a good chunk of them don't belong in college. So what? Let's talk about the injustice of the BCS rankings instead.

All of which is lamentable, but the Paterno scandal is different, as the look-the-other-way behavior (or, in the case of two senior Penn State officials, outright perjury) didn't enable some coddled athletes but instead led to little boys being raped. Several little boys--the count stands at nine who have come forward, and it seems reasonable to suppose that these are not the only nine. According to the Grand Jury report, Paterno had been told the explicit details of the rape of "Victim #2" when informed by grad student Mike McQueary in 2002. Moreover, one thinks that the Coach must have heard, at the least, rumors of some odd behavior of Sandusky in 1998 involving showering with a child. As Andrew Rosenthal notes while scratching his head, these are not the actions of a man who should be allowed to script his own exit, whatever sterling reputation he may have had previous to November 2011.

The ESPN columnist Rick Reilly argues that this story isn't really about Paterno, but I would beg to differ. Stories of pedophiles being caught, however grotesque, are not centrally important to the national news of the United States. But when powerful people in a revered institution give a free pass to a pedophile due to whatever inexplicable reasons tied to the success of a football team, that is a statement about not only the abuse of power by those people, but also the screwed-up priorities that gave such people that kind of power in the first place.