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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.


Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...

Excellent work, Prof. Congratulations.

5:06 PM  
Anonymous Pay per head websites said...

Well, It is quite hard to find a place where there are people that they earn their money according to their position in the University.

3:56 PM  

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