Friday, November 11, 2011

The End of the Innocence: Penn State, Football and Us

Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn't have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standing by
But "happily ever after" fails
And we've been poisoned by these fairly tales
The lawyers dwell on small details. . .

-- from Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence."

I've waited for a while to comment on the Penn State situation because of two factors. First, as a native Pennsylvanian and Pennsylvania resident, I have gone through many emotions -- disbelief, shock, anger, frustration and sadness, to name just five. Second, I know from experience that it's good to let a difficult situation settle in to gain some perspective before writing on it.

The entire situation is a very sad one and one where there are no winners. Everyone lost, particularly what we'll probably learn are dozens if not hundreds of young boys who were victims of Jerry Sandusky and a culture/system that failed to protect them. My guess is that the situation will get worse before it gets better, because we will learn many more disturbing facts as the investigators continue to turn over rocks. My guess also is that certain powers at Penn State -- most notably Joe Paterno and the higher ups in the university -- knew of Sandusky's "dirty little secret" long before now on-leave assistant coach Mike McQueary witnessed a horrifying act in 2002. Why no one did anything -- other than presumably force Sandusky to an early retirement near the peak of his career perhaps because his secret was coming into their workplace too often -- is a question that we will discuss for a long time. At the core, a culture existed in the now-misnamed Happy Valley that failed to protect some of society's most vulnerable members. We all feel deeply for the victims.

Beyond that, we learned something very disturbing about our society, our belief system, our needs and ourselves. As a Pennsylvanian, I can assure you that I have wonderful neighbors, people who extend many kindnesses to one another. I have among my friends many Penn State alums and friends whose kids have gone to Penn State. Forever, they all have cherished the place -- as some type of haven unsullied by the pace, grime and higher crime rates of big cities, as a haven where goodness rules and where a demigod named Joe Paterno set a morale code on the campus that enabled the university to play its extracurricular games on national stages at a high level while ostensibly not sacrificing its standards of making sure that players both graduate and behave. You could hear the reverence of Penn State, State College and Paterno in the way they talked about the place. Some would watch Penn State games with life-sized cardboard cutouts of Paterno in their family rooms. The whole aura of Penn State -- and their connection to it -- gave them an extra bounce in their step.

And now that's all gone. Here are two pieces -- one from the leading sports talk show host in Philadelphia (a Penn State alum) and a business writer in Philadelphia (also a Penn State alum) that touch upon this very notion. The former suggests that perhaps the gritty town from which he went to Penn State wasn't so bad after all. The latter -- who chose Penn State over Temple because of similar idyllic reasons -- is shaken to the core. Make no mistake -- first and foremost they have expressed sympathy for the victims -- but they too are hurting because they are wondering how their once-sacred alma mater could have let them down and, derivatively, how they -- educated and intelligent people -- could have bought into a system in the first place that let vulnerable kids and our society down so greatly.

And perhaps because so many reporters and commentators have covered so many aspects of this case that I will choose a different angle. Many have commented on the power of Joe Paterno, the culpability of the administration, whether university president Graham Spanier (whose specialty as an academic ironically is family therapy) should have lost his job, whether Paterno should have lost his job, whether assistant coach Mike McQueary should have lost his job (he's on administrative leave), what happened when the university seemingly compelled Jerry Sandusky's departure over a decade ago, why some students rioted after the news of Paterno's dismissal, whether Saturday's game against Nebraska should have been played, whether the remainder of the season should have been cancelled and many other topics related directly to the university, the people there and its alumni. There have been many eloquent pieces written, from Phil Taylor's great piece in Sports Illustrated to dozens of columns particularly in Pennsylvania papers. I would recommend many of them.

But the topic that I would like to address is how and why our society has evolved the way it has, why we need football so much, why we have put it on a pedestal, why people's self-esteem can rise and fall through a connection with a program or an institution and its successes and failures and, correspondingly, the lengths that people will go to ignore problems in order to protect their beloved institutions seemingly at all costs. Is it simply human nature that we don't feel complete unless we align with a group, a school, a team everyday in some way? Does it have to be the case that we can't feel good about ourselves unless those associations are excellent? And when I say "we" I mean people in general, as we all know of someone who thinks that football is silly and that spending a day watching a contest means that you're spending a day not exercising, not reading, not improving your house or volunteering to help others.

One linked writer wrote of all of her Penn State swag that decorates her home and her cube at the newspaper. The other linked writer talked of how he wasn't proud of where he grew up, and Penn State was supposed to be an idyllic, special place. But in the end, does the omnipresence of the swag suggest the worshipping of a golden calf, a lesson that the human race once learned a very long time ago? And does the relative dissatisfaction with where one grew up -- and a thanks that one did not have to endure the gritty streets where Temple University is located -- say something bad about ourselves? That we equate proximity to a factory with bad values and four years in Happy Valley with good ones automatically and without question? More poignantly, should we feel superior about ourselves and our institutions -- and blindly follow them and not question whether sports get emphasized out of proportion -- just because they have "excellent" football programs and coaches who seem larger than life. Maybe we don't give ourselves, our communities and what we do daily enough credit, that maybe all of that stuff is good enough -- without a need to feel better because our gridders beat up on someone else's.

At the end of a day, football is -- or perhaps should be -- an extracurricular activity the same way student government, the band and the school newspaper are. At the end of the day, head football coaches are university employees and should not be more important than the university president or the university itself. In David Halberstam's book on Bill Belichick, the author spoke of how the coach's father, a legendary football scout, responded to comments that his son was a genius. "Genius," the father mused. "All he does is run up and down on the sidelines in a sweatshirt coaching football."

For an institution to be worthy of enduring respect, it must be bigger than any coach, any team, any professor, any department and command the respect of those who work there. Why? Because people come and go, but the institution -- if having the right values -- will and should endure for much longer. Penn State had, has and will have much more going for it than the football team and its coach. None of my friends who went to Penn State had any involvement with the football program other than going to games and all have much to recommend themselves regardless of where they went to school and whether their alma mater had a good football team or a legendary coach. But somehow the football program grew to be bigger than the school and, tragically, forgot why it was there and, as a result, a reasonable measure of accountability.

The entire Penn State affair shows how societies can lose perspective on what's important. I hope and pray that everyone involved with Penn State -- especially its board of trustees and its leadership -- does a deep dive as to what a major university's priorities should be and, over time, reconstitute and re-earn the faith and trust that many placed -- without question -- into Pennsylvania State University. And, in the process, teach us that what we do every day -- by being good neighbors, good friends and good family members -- should give us enough self-esteem that we don't have to blindly protect our institutions and football programs at all costs so that we can feel better about ourselves. If Penn State's leaders can achieve that, then as a public university Penn State will do all citizens a lot more good than Joe Paterno's 409 wins and packed stadiums in State College ever have.

Pennsylvania State University, its football team and its coach were among the things and people that the average Pennsylvanian and alumnus could believe in as some of the best things their society had to offer, shining examples of what a public university, its teams and its leaders should be. The news of the past few weeks ended the innocence of those who were the true believers in everything blue and white, all but a few of whom are decent people, the neighbors and friends of you and me. Yet, that tragic realization is far eclipsed by the stories of the victims, whose innocence ended far too early and far too awfully. Penn State alums would readily trade their current misery -- and the happiness they had while they were in State College -- so that this whole thing would never have happened.

Let's hope and pray that those same decent people will work to heal their community, to do right by the victims, and to work to make Penn State a better place.