Dreams Die Hard: Penn State, Paterno, Sandusky & the Death of Innocence
He was the quintessential college football coach in charge of the model college football program at a legendary college football university. He was the man that even other legendary coaches looked up and aspired to. He was the embodiment of integrity, ethics, morality and balance of perspective. His students not only graduated, but graduated with honors. Many of his graduates went on to graduate school and to places in life where they made a real difference. He won more games than any other top-level coach in the history of the game. He was college football.
As usual with situations that look too good to be true, Penn State was not true. In no time at all, Joe Paterno and the other "leaders" at Penn State went from being role models and the ideal university football program to being a pathetic and sad cautionary tale. The Penn State scandal points out the myriad of problems that have become the fundamental values that drive college football today: ego, money and reputation. While what happened at Penn State is particularly and egregiously evil, the attitudes and perspectives that created it and allowed it to fester into the incredible mess that it has become are prevalent almost everywhere in college football.
While it is easy to point fingers at Penn State and Coach Paterno, it is important to remember that when one points a finger at others, there are four fingers pointing right back at them. Penn State's crisis is troubling beyond comprehension, and one has to wonder what caused it and if, or perhaps when, something similar will happen again. These issues need to be addressed openly and honestly, and each institution, and each person in those institutions, needs to examine not just Penn State, but themselves as well. College football will not survive this happening again.
If no one learns anything else from this disaster, what must be learned is that children are our most valuable resource and that football is simply a game. If a football game is won or lost, some are happy, some are sad and life goes on. When a child is sexually abused, the world does not go on, for that child, the child's parents, family, friends or future.
Penn State's scandal is not about football; it is about the abuse of power by moral and ethical cowards who were more concerned about the success of a game and protecting their obscenely undeserved salaries than the innocence of children who have now been permanently scarred. A game was made more important than children.
Why did this happen?
The Issue of Perspective
I hate to have to be the one to tell everybody, but football is just a game. No matter how much money it produces or how many players it sends to the NFL, nor how many games a team wins, nor how popular it makes its institutions, nor how huge the television ratings are, football is just a damn game. That's all.
College football has always uniquely benefited from a certain, err, mania when it comes to its place in the identity of many universities. Universities have always derived a certain popular perceived worth from how well its chosen few athletic students perform against other students from other universities who play the same game. Over time, we have collectively lost sight of the fact that it is just a game. If a team wins or loses, the SATs keep being administered, classes keep meeting, the world keeps rotating at about 3,000 miles an hour and life goes on.
Winning the mythical national championship says little, if anything, about the institution that it represents any more than coming in last in the weakest conference does. And yet every year, we worship at the altar of the crystal football and argue over who did what, who cheated whom and whose screwed up priorities were more screwed up than ours to get farther down the road of football perfection.
Even if that football perfection is achieved, so what? The only people who have really accomplished anything are those students on the field. The fans have achieved nothing personal, and yet many fans derive a personal sense of worth or worthlessness depending on how their team does each year. Instead of defining their own place in the world, many fans' self-worth and personal happiness each football season rises and falls as their school's BCS and AP rankings do.
Maybe we have all lost our sense of perspective. And reality.
Winning: It Only Means What It Means
What Is Winning?
CBS research continues to show that there are clear correlations between the success of a school's football program and its larger place in academia. Football success has often translated into many more new freshman applicants to a school. For instance, applications at both TCU and Boise State increased substantially in one year after winning a BCS Bowl game (Boise against Oklahoma, TCU in the Rose Bowl). There are a number of other examples of football wins translating to a dramatic rise in freshman (and to a lesser degree graduate) applications, creation of new academic scholarships and increases in endowments.
While there is nothing particularly wrong with this on its face, one has to ask: Why does it happen?
Do schools whose football teams win games suddenly improve their academics that dramatically? Do these schools somehow become magically endowed with greater wisdom? No, they simply became more popular because their football teams won. TCU had extremely high academic standards before it won the Rose Bowl and went undefeated, and still had them after it won the Rose Bowl and went undefeated. Boise was a very good school before it beat Oklahoma, and were just as good after it won.
In both cases, all that both of those schools did was win a game played thousands of miles from their campus that happened to have been watched by millions on television. An athletic achievement to be sure, but that is all it was. Nothing earth-shaking, nothing that alleviated poverty or illiteracy, nor cured cancer or helped define our national heritage.
Football's primary accomplishment is to provide a wonderful forum for students to compete and fans to watch and enjoy a game. Winning this game provides some visibility and perhaps greater popularity. But the larger world remains unchanged.
That larger world is where Sandusky prowled and others did nothing, and his victims cannot say that their world remained unchanged. Far from it. They did not win anything. Winning in football means you scored more than the other guys. Winning in life means that you had the moral courage to confront what Penn State did not have the moral courage to even acknowledge existed. Winning for Penn State would have meant it did the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do. Penn State and, far, far more importantly, those children, lost. Badly.
Football vs. Reality
Football ≠ Reality
College football is not reality. It is a fantasy land where perceived major issues, conflicts of cultures and issues of talent and teamwork are all settled with a finality that rarely happens in real life. College football allows all of its fans to participate, and win, vicariously through watching their teams play a game—granted, a fun and exciting game to both play and watch, but still only a game.
One reason college football became so popular early on was that it had the potential to teach important life lessons through the medium of a, relatively speaking, unimportant activity. The good coaches in the game today still teach fair play, teamwork, integrity and honesty, self-sacrifice and other important values as they also teach the game to their players. They also teach that these values are more important than winning without integrity or honor. There are still some schools who recognize that football is popular and fun, but is not the be-all, end-all of college existence and worth. The good coaches in the game tie reality into the fantasy world of college ball by how they coach and the values they instill.
Unfortunately, those good coaches are few and far between. Most programs, as Penn State so painfully demonstrates, teach winning at all costs, that money and prestige are far more important than honesty and openness and that anything that might compromise the reputation and monetary worth of the football program (and the coaches' ridiculously inflated, multi-million dollar livelihoods) should be suppressed at any cost. Even the cost of the innocence of countless children. Football for them is a valuable boat that cannot be rocked for any reason, even the safety of children or the prevention of their rape.
And that is what Sandusky did and Paterno, Tim Curley, Graham Spanier and others enabled—not some innocuous "abuse" or "fondling"—they enabled Sandusky to rape children at will. That is the reality here. No game of any value to any institution should have come before that. The fantasy world of college football so obscured the nature of reality and basic decency for everyone involved that none of Penn State's "leaders" saw any problem with allowing Sandusky free reign for 13 years to rape little boys. They were too worried about treating the rapist "humanely."
That is beyond reprehensible. And unfortunately, that is also the reality of this situation.
The Real Problem
Charlie Brown Never Learned Not To Trust Lucy
The real problem here is a deceptively simple one. We have taken a game and created out of it something far more than it is. What began as a game that encouraged healthy competition and individual and team excellence has been turned into a solipsistic exercise in ego, money and indulgent self-importance and an institutional lack of trust and dignity. Grown men get paid many millions of dollars to teach younger men who are being paid nothing how to win at all costs.
In pouring millions into football programs, bending simple rules designed to assure fairness and adopting a take-no-prisoners attitude to assure winning, we have completely destroyed the value and meaning of what winning is in the first place.
What happened to our game? It has become a big, heartless, inhumane business that provides exorbitant riches for the adults who run the game and nothing for the students who play it. Instead of being an enriching addition to the life of the university, it has now become the main identity and mission for many universities who need the dollars this heartless business produces for them.
Penn State's failure to stop one child rapist that it knew was continuing to rape children says all that needs to be said about the priorities of college football. The children being raped paid them nothing and offered them nothing. They were a worthless commodity in the big business of football, certainly not worth as much as Penn State's football reputation.
In most programs, something that evil is not going on—I hope—but other things are. Tattoogate, oversigning, pay for play, boosters corrupting entire programs, drugs being sold on campus, academic connivance and cheating—scandal is everywhere in college football. Some schools handle it well by admitting the problem, dealing with it, separating the students involved from the university and accepting the consequences. That is the rare exception.
Most universities lie and cover up for fear of losing what they already have: the huge salaries of coaches, the prestige and money for the schools and the huge television contracts of the conferences. The effect on the students who play the game is, in the best scenarios, an after thought. Concern for children who had nothing at all to give Penn State was non-existent. Protecting the Penn State brand destroyed the innocence of every child that Sandusky raped and ultimately the brand itself.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The Highway To Hel....Somewhere
Where does college football go from here? There will be the usual reflection and recriminations. Joe Paterno will be blamed, as will the others from the Penn State hierarchy. Sandusky will hopefully spend the rest of his time with a roommate named Rocko The Boy Crusher. Or all alone.
What about the rest of football? History shows that we will talk about the Penn State scandal for a month or two, wring our hands, say "what a shame" and then go on as if nothing really happened. I hope that history will not repeat itself this time. Every university president, professor, athletic director, coach, player, booster and fan should realize that Penn State's scandal is a warning shot for everyone in college football to examine their own programs, reassess their priorities and ask themselves what winning is really worth, and what winning really is.
Do coaches really earn more than the university presidents that they work for? Why should they? Should college football really be the industry it has become to the detriment of those it exploits, both students and others? College football may have become a marketplace, but that is one of its huge problems: It is not a marketplace; it is a game.
Perhaps the solution is much simpler. It is time that those who lead football actually take charge, man up and lead football. They need to mean what they say, say what they mean, follow the rules simply because it is the right thing to do and be the real men they claim to be. They need to find the moral courage to confront the dishonesty, avarice, greed, moral cowardice and egotism that is destroying college football, beginning in their own mirrors. No one did at Penn State, and countless innocent lives were destroyed as a result.
Many will argue that what college football is today is just fine, and as it should be, since college football is simply a reflection of how the cold, cruel world really is. Go tell that to the children that Sandusky raped. If the world is truly that cold and cruel, we helped make the world that way by corrupting a game and turning it into what it has become today. College football can be saved by the simple realization that it is a game—not the totality of existence—and should be treasured and enjoyed as such.
There is an old adage that "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." The greed, avarice, solipsistically self-important, morally vacant intentions of college football reflected in the Penn State scandal have made that road a superhighway, and without significant change very soon—in priority, in leadership, in basic moral courage and awareness regarding basic intent and motivations—college football is not on the road to hell.
It is on the super expressway.