Saturday, July 28, 2012

Penn State: Tragedies Have No Winners, and the Games Should Not Go On (Not Now)

Much has been said and written since the Freeh report issued and the NCAA punished Penn State.  I have a friends who are Penn State alums, am a native Pennsylvanian and live here now.  Those facts, perhaps, give me a different perspective from someone who works in Indianapolis, lives in Centre County, Pennsylvania, went to Penn State, writes for a national media organization or plays or coaches major college football, among other things.  So, here goes:

1.  There are no winners here.    We all ache for the victims of Jerry Sandusky and at the fact that many more victims could have avoided their fate if senior, responsible adults who should have known better did the right thing.  We ache for the victims and their families, first and foremost.  As a Pennsylvanian, I also am sad for my state, and for friends and neighbors with strong ties to Penn State (I have none other than being a lifelong resident of the state).  I am sad for the kids who are there now, whose institution now suffers from a long-term, indelible stain, the roots of which began perhaps as long ago as before they were born and took root when some of them were in pre-school.  I am sad for those community members, faculty, students and alums who had nothing to do with the culture, and I am sad for those who did -- they fell into the gravity pull of golden-calf worship, poor priorities and forgetting what the purpose of a university education is -- to educate every student and impart a solid set of values that they will carry back to their communities and jobs and help make the world a better place.  Many of them do just that in their daily lives, but they enabled a culture of hero worship that ultimately led to a lack of accountability and awful harm to innocent young boys.

2.  Penn State should not be playing football this year.  I have vacillated on this point because of my proximity and because of compelling (at times) arguments that current players (who, likewise, had nothing to do to cause this tragedy) should not be punished, but at the end of the day, I keep on coming back to what I believe was a bad culture in State College.  Judge Freeh (and NCAA President Mel Emmert) got it right when he discussed a "football first" culture (although Penn State is far from the only place to suffer from this problem).  This culture had permeated Pennsylvania and elsewhere since I can remember.  There were too many who elevated Penn State football (because it played high-level football and was a "clean" program) and its coach, Joe Paterno, to a perch that neither deserved, not even before the Sandusky affair and the tragedy of the young victims surfaced.

I am also not sure if they should be playing football for a while.

Sure, there's the argument that the current kids had nothing to do with this, and that's absolutely true, they did not.  But, by the same token, we must not let that argument eclipse the tragedy and the larger issue -- which was that Coach Paterno and the football program had way too much influence at Penn State and that the overall culture was terrible at its worst and out of balance at its best.  I know from experience how far that culture permeated, through talking with alum after alum who, rightly or wrongly got off on the fact that they had some identification with Coach Paterno and football games.  That's probably not unique at BCS schools, but Paterno had way too much influence (so much so that he refused to retire and made a mockery of the succession planning process).  The bottom line is that a tragedy occurred because of football, and Beaver Stadium should lie fallow this year as a result (even if the entire team were to transfer).  The emptiness -- and silence -- should stand as a reminder for everyone of when a culture ran amok and young, innocent kids got hurt.   That's the least the NCAA and Penn State could have done -- to set an example that nothing is more important than the safety of our children.

There are things, after all, that are more important than football.

3.  The NCAA might think it took a strong action, but it set a lot of expectations for itself in meting out punishment to Penn State so quickly.  A columnist in the Philadelphia Inquirer got it right (I think it was Bob Ford) when he wrote that the NCAA, which has been under withering criticism for providing toothless remedies) got a free swing at Penn State and took it.  That's true, and while I believe that Penn State deserved to be whacked -- and hard -- I think that the NCAA might have misstepped in acting so quickly.   Here's the thinking -- suppose the next scandal involves an SEC school (and all of them have football-first cultures except Kentucky, which has a basketball-first culture, and Vanderbilt, which has an academics-first culture).  Suppose it's bad (if not as egregious and shielding a child abuser), but that it involves gang bangers or drug dealers or sexual harassers (and depending on the degree, egregious to just as egregious), some or all of which get protected because heaven forbid that a national championship be put in jeopardy.  Will the NCAA mete out analogous punishment?  And, if it doesn't, what will happen to the authority of the NCAA, moral or otherwise?  Look, the NCAA wasn't in an easy spot, but I think that President Emmert, through his words and actions, wrote some checks that this oversight body will not be able to cash.  And if it can't mete out similar punishment in the future, what authority will it really have over its members (and what could prompt the big-revenue schools -- as previously predicted -- to bolt the NCAA anyway, seeking to answer to a lesser, less powerful authority?).

4.  How many other scandals will surface at BCS schools now that the NCAA meted out such strong punishment for Penn State?   As a native Pennsylvanian, I am saddened, shocked and horrified by what happened.  To be blunt, I never really cared for Paterno because of his deification (and the fact that he not only let it happen but seemed to enjoy it) and got skeptical about all BCS-type schools (because I truly believe that academics should come first and that students should really focus on building their skill sets as opposed to identifying -- too much -- with their schools' teams).  That said, I've always thought of Penn State as a good school that offers excellent opportunities and that turns out very fine graduates.  I don't share that view about other BCS schools, many of which do not hold themselves (otherwise) to the standards that Penn State does.  And no, not everything at Penn State was or is awful because of the Sandusky scandal -- it's not fair to paint the entire school, its academics and its graduates with the unfortunate actions of a few (even if people in the community participated in a culture that had skewed priorities).  But do you mean to tell me that coaches never pressured professors at other schools, covered for habitual gamblers, sexual harassers or even drug dealers?  Or kids who en masse violated rules?  I predict that 5-10 scandals will surface in the next 18 months that represent cover-ups at other schools.  If that's the case, what will the NCAA do?  Cancel football at those schools?  Provide Penn State-like punishments?  It should, and if it doesn't, then why should it exist?

5.  Joseph Paterno is not Josef Stalin.  The former suffered from a lack of humility, skewed priorities and too much false pride.  But he also made sure his kids went to class, got (meaningful) degrees and graduated.  He and his wife donated millions to his university.  Most coaches cannot claim that.  Yes, he was tragically flawed, and there's no doubt about that.  He wasn't the guy that his enablers and elegizers wanted us to believe he was.  But he wasn't Jerry Sandusky, either.  Penn State students, fans, alumni and community members never should have put him on the pedestal that they did.  And he shouldn't have let them.  But he did a bunch of good things, even if he's getting excoriated now.  As for the latter, how many millions died because of his policies?  50 million?  Joe Paterno was human, and, yes, more so than most of the rest of us.  But that doesn't make him one of history's major villains.  What he did -- or did not do -- was terrible, yes, but as with many things, it will take a while for the furor to die down and for the professional observers to reflect on his strengths and weaknesses.  By the same token, those who played for him, many of whom had deep, personal connections, shouldn't blindly defend his image, either.  That's not right, and it certainly won't help the healing, either.

6.  Hopefully some good can come out of this across the board.  First, all universities should have clear rule as to how to report the types of activities that Mike McQueary and others witnessed.  Second, all universities should make it clear that it wants/needs that type of conduct to be reported quickly and that if there were any retribution, those who retaliate will be gone, even if they won 409 games in their careers.  Third, the BCS schools need to change their cultures -- no one there should eclipse the institution, period.  No coach or team, and that goes for Coach K at Duke and John Calipari at Kentucky and anyone else you can name.  The welfare of all community members -- neighbors, employees, students, alumni -- should come before the compensation and ego of any coach and the record and opportunities of any team.  As importantly, the education of all students must be paramount, period.  All students deserve more.

7.  Should they have stripped Joe Paterno of victories dating back to 1998?  Whew.  Outside a request from an attorney in Grambling, Louisiana (home of Grambling University and its legendary coach, Eddie Robinson), I didn't hear much about this until the NCAA did this.  I wasn't expecting it, and I think that what motivated the NCAA was to make the punishment personal to Paterno, whom it believed could have and should have done more to report Sandusky and make him persona non grata at Penn State.  Then again, the players on those teams most likely witnessed nothing, had nothing to do with Paterno's decisions and did nothing to cause the scandal.  The need to punish Paterno personally created collateral damage -- to hard-working kids, class-attending kids -- who, at least in their minds if not more -- now are victims too.  I'm not sure whether this is the right result -- or not.  It certainly knocks Paterno off any pedestals that might remain after his death.  That it does do.  No one wins in a tragedy.

8.  Should Penn State have taken the statue of Joe Paterno down?  Absolutely.  Heck, it never should have gone up in the first place, and while I do not like to use the words "always" and "never," "never" applies here.  Who on this earth lets a statue of them be constructed while she/he is still alive?  Who lets that happen?  First, it's not humble.  Second, it's hubris (and rubs the person's fame into the faces of others and also sets a standard of behavior -- tantamount to the qualifications for sainthood -- that the person will be held to).  Third, it's just ridiculous (and just as ridiculous as letting your likeness be painted on a mural -- with a halo over your head).   With that as background, the answer is easy -- of course it should have come down, and there shouldn't have been any debate over that.  The whole root of the problem was the glorification of football and the coach of the team -- straight out of the Freeh report and the NCAA's response.   I know that this hurts some people who really looked up to Joe Paterno -- but those people should re-examine why they did and why that statue is so important to them (and that's not to say that Joe Paterno didn't do great things for some people -- I am sure that he did -- but that doesn't mean he warranted a statue while he was alive).   As Diane Henriques wrote in her book about Bernie Madoff, commenting on why Madoff's scam lasted for so long, "the biggest lies are the ones we tell ourselves."  Among them are a) that Penn State football is more important than anything else in my life and b) Joe Paterno was a saint.  Admitting that those aren't true flat out hurts.

9.  The future for Penn State will be difficult, across the board.    The fine will hurt the school, and not just the football program.  Yes, fans will rally behind the current seniors and perhaps fill Beaver Stadium this year, but in year three when the team is depleted and not landing top recruits and ends up 3-9 and losing to the likes of Temple, who knows  Some will argue that this is a small price to pay when an over-emphasis on football led to what it did.  And if football were the only thing that were hurt, that wouldn't be so bad, at least for a while.  But revenues from football help fund other sports at BCS sports, and Penn State is no exception.  So, other athletes might get hurt.  Then again, many BCS schools over-emphasize all sports, so if all sports were to get hurt, I am not as concerned, either.  The reason I say this is that we need a greater emphasis on the education of all kids, and their positive experiences should extend far beyond the classroom and six fall football weekends.

But that's the easy part.  Penn State might not have insurance for the types of lawsuits that it will get hit with from victims, and if it has insurance the carriers might try to deny coverage.  The university might not have the funds to pay all the victims, especially if there are jury trials and if the plaintiffs ask for punitive damages (which may not be covered by insurance anyway).  The financial ramifications could be pretty awful.

10.  Conclusion.  Penn State is a wonderful institution with terrific programs and outstanding students and alumni.  It really is.  That said, it had a tragic flaw, one that it will have to take great measures to repair, and one that will take time to repair.  What the institution must do, however, is to move forward with its football program without further lament from current players or former players, most of whom are dismayed to disillusioned to devastated, but none of whom will help the process by arguing about the penalties the school incurred or Coach Paterno's legacy.  The jury has spoken in the Sandusky case, and the Freeh report speaks for itself.  Unless there are tremendous flaws which strike at the root of the findings, the school -- and its alumni -- need to move on.  The school also needs to adopt many of the suggestions of the Freeh report, change its culture and honor the best the the school and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania -- have to offer.  Ultimately, some good can come out of this tragedy -- about preventing child abuse, about cultures of accountability, about making sure that academics always come first, even at BCS schools.  But it will take some time.

Tragedies have no winners.

And no, the games shouldn't go on, not now, not for a while.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Penn State: Say It Ain't So, Joe.

I wrote this piece in November.  I suppose that I did not doubt what Judge Freeh's investigation would conclude.  I also think that it still holds today.  You can read this piece, called "The End of the Innocence" here.

Once in a while I have spoken with my wife about not wanting to send our kids to any institution of higher learning where any program or department or person seemed to be greater in importance than the institution or where any coach made more money than the university president.  The root of that comment is found, in part, in the whole Penn State tragedy.  The football program and its coach became larger than the university.  And therein began the problem.

Identity with the football program and, by extension, its coach, the Ivy-educated Joe Paterno (who eschewed law school to coach at Penn State) became more important than the university itself.  And, so did Coach Paterno.

And a funny thing can happen to great men.   On the way to their transcending excellence, they develop a vision and a philosophy that drives them.  What can distinguish them from the rest of us is their drive and their self-confidence.  Many of us don't push ourselves as hard, have difficulty filtering all of the advice we get, perhaps listen to more of it than the great men, and then bog down in that advice and settle for lesser roles (correspondingly, we also might not share that ambition, might want a more balanced life, and might not want to "do what it takes" to get to that high a perch -- so this is by no means a condemnation of most people, who don't become household names but who do contribute to forming the core of their communities).  We also might be kinder, because to achieve that kind of excellence involves making the kinds of decisions that can hurt people -- telling a kid who's played football his whole life that he's not good enough, pushing the athletic director hard for more resources, getting an academic dean to back off the star position player so he can remain eligible, firing an assistant coach because he cannot recruit.  In essence, being very tough -- and sometimes mean -- to other people's children.  Greatness, then, has its costs.

In addition, the more successful these great men become, the more they risk surrounding themselves with people who not only are not candid with them, but who also tell them what they want to hear and validate their every move, no matter how unthinking, how insensitive, or how unkind.   Why does that happen?  Well, for one, the great man starts to believe in his own publicity, and starts to believe that everything he touches must be golden.  Those who surround him bask in the aura of being affiliated with him and don't want to risk being frozen out or excluded if they were to take a stand.  So, sometimes, they compromise their judgments and stifle their views in order to keep an important part of their identity intact.   This phenomenon is the flip side to the talent of the great man and his professional accomplishments, which are not to be denied and are vast.  But it also seems to be the case that as the accomplishments peak, the flip side becomes more pronounced -- and sometimes can lead to the downfall of the great man.

The downfall comes because reason gets comprised and reality gets distorted.  In Penn State's case, you know the story.  Joe Paterno had become larger than life, and no one had the courage to say, "this is lunacy, Joe, we have to go as high as the President if we have to, but we have to report this and, also, take care of these kids.  Jerry has got to go, period, no compromises."  And if the response was, "how can you say that after all he has done for the university, the football program and me?' then the advisor -- anyone -- should have said, "the serious possibility of vicious felonies against children throws all of that out the window."  And, yes, everyone is entitled to a defense, and, yes, eyewitness accounts aren't always accurate.  I get all of that.  But when the smoke persisted, they had to do a lot more than they did.  And given Joe Paterno's clear position of authority and influence -- far greater than anyone else's in Happy Valley -- he should have set the example that no one is bigger than the university and that everyone had a duty to do the right thing.  He didn't.

And while to be great means that you might have to be tough on, even nasty or mean to somebody's child to get to your perch, you don't have to create a culture where another can do unspeakable things to somebody else's children and get away with it.  Therein lies the big difference between the regrettable narcissism that can accompany legends and the lack of accountability that pulls those legends back to earth and crumbles them on impact.

It was easy to oust those who were ousted, and they should have been ousted, Coach Paterno included.   But the entire Board should be replaced, too.  There are very good people on that Board -- excellent people -- but they also presided over a culture that put football and Coach Paterno on a pedestal and I am sure got enjoyment out of the fact that they were affiliated with such a larger-than-life legend as Joe Paterno.  Each of the Board members should ask themselves the question:  "Honestly, did I get off on the fact that Penn State had a great football program and that we were blessed to have such a great man as Joe Paterno leading it -- and every now and then more so than anything else about the university?"  And if the answer is yes, then he or she should resign, because then he or she enabled a culture that prioritized the wrong things and rendered Joe Paterno and the football program unaccountable and provided it with a disproportionate amount of influence.  The Board. lamentably, was a party to the enabling of the culture that led to the failure to report Jerry Sandusky's alleged actions.  As a result, it should be replaced.

That's a sad conclusion to draw, but a necessary one to honor the victims, change the culture and enable the healing.  The administration has turned over, the football coaching staff has turned over, and now this must happen too.  There doesn't seem to be any other way.

The detritus, the destruction, the barren landscape that can resulted from a catastrophe should help Penn State start anew and serve as a reminder for generations that the core values of human life far outweigh whether you go to a BCS Bowl and can contend for a national title.  And, perhaps, if Penn State were to suspend football for a season (or more), the quiet Saturdays at Beaver Stadium could serve as a compelling monument to a new culture that puts every member of the Nittany Lion community on the same footing, with clear mechanisms as to what to do if the predicate acts of the Sandusky affair were to come into their community again.  The lives of boys -- and in this case disadvantaged ones -- should take precedence over a boys' game.

These are sad times in Happy Valley, as they should be.  Times for reflection, times for soul-searching, times for transformation, times for cleansing and times for healing.   And, yes, the circumstances dictate that the landscape of those who were in power be reduced, relatively speaking, to the foundation and to the core.

And I, for one, don't care if they tear down the Lash building while they're at it, tear down the statue of Joe Paterno, or if they play another football game there for a long time.

Because college should be a lot more than identifying with a coach and a football program (and a coach, by the way, who was permitted to stay well beyond his prime because the authorities at the university let the coach become bigger than the institution).  After all, there are tens of thousands of kids at Penn State, 99+ percent of whom have NOTHING to do with the football program.  And they should ask themselves the following question:  what does the football program do for me?  Because, if they are honest with themselves, the answer really is a resounding "nothing" or at least a "not all that much."

And, in the process, they should demand more of the university and, correspondingly, of themselves -- in terms of programs, training, the building of skills -- yes, education and refortify the school's image as a place that not only prepares its students well for the job market (as PSU fared well in a survey among employers in a national magazine within the past year), but also for leadership within communities.

After all, universities should be about building better people. . . and not statutes of football coaches (and while they are still alive, at that) and football programs.

A lot more.