Thursday, November 10, 2011

No Heroes

When I was a kid, we had a crappy black and white television with a pair of rabbit ears (tipped with aluminum foil, the advantages of which I still fail to understand or accept -- it always seemed like an ineffective panacea to me) perched on top. Under optimum conditions, we got three channels to varying degrees: PBS, CBS, and sometimes NBC, sometimes ABC, but never both. Watching TV was almost always an ultra low-def experience, but we didn't care. We didn't watch a ton of television anyway, certainly not by today's standards, and we barely knew any better (I think I was eleven or twelve the first time I saw cable television, at somebody else's house, of course). What we did watch pretty regularly, however, my older brother and I, was college football on Saturday afternoons. I preferred it to the professional game: the ball seemed to be just a little bigger than most of the players could comfortably handle, and for the most part the players on the field seemed, to me at least, mostly evenly matched. There was also an element to the game that I appreciated even then: there is no playoff system in Division I college football, which means that every game matters, and you can see that in the way the kids go after every play. You can't simply limp through a nine and seven season and then maybe make unexpected waves in the playoffs like teams can in the NFL. In college football, you win, you make it to a Bowl game, and maybe if the pollsters feel kindly toward you, you're crowned national champion. As a kid, for all those reasons, I appreciated and enjoyed the game.

Living in the hinterlands with limited viewing options, we saw the marquee games. There was a lot of Notre Dame, lots of Ohio State and Michigan and USC and UCLA, plenty of Alabama and Tennessee and the dreaded Florida universities (hate them all, without exception, in every sport, in every way), Texas and Oklahoma and Nebraska. And there was a whole lot of Penn State.

I loved Penn State football immediately. The uniforms were stark: bright white helmets with no adornment other than a dark blue stripe running down the center, dark blue jerseys sporting nothing -- nothing, not the player's name on the back, not the school's name on the front -- and plain white pants. Those uniforms represented not only a fierce solemnity but also an unequivocal sense of unqualified unity: no one player was above any other, and if you had to ask what team it was, you should probably just go watch golf. Seeing that sea of dark blue and white amassed in the mouth of the tunnel preparing to storm the field at the beginning of the game -- that was a sight to behold. And always, at the front of that mob, stood a tiny, bespectacled man in shirt and tie. At first glance he looked as out of place among those padded and helmeted giants as would a lawn gnome, or my mom, but when he took that little hop step and ran across the field, the mad corn-fed horde of his players swarming around him, there was no mistaking who he was or what he meant to those young men. He was Coach.

There are a lot of things I can tell you about Joe Paterno. His entire coaching career was spent at Penn State (although for about three weeks in 1972 he was technically the coach of the New England Patriots, before he changed his mind and decided to remain at PSU), where he won 409 games, the most ever by a Division I coach. His teams won 24 of the 37 Bowl games in which they played. They won two national championships, most recently in 1986 when they went undefeated and then beat top-ranked Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Sports Illustrated named Paterno its Sportsman of the Year as a result, the first time a college football coach had been so recognized.

I can also tell you that, in a sport that is notoriously rife with unbridled corruption, his program has remained remarkably free of NCAA scoldings. An impressive percentage of his players actually graduate, in part, no doubt, because Paterno preached "success with honor," challenging his players to succeed in the classroom as well as on the field. For more than four decades, with rare exceptions, the name Joe Paterno was synonymous with dignity and honor and doing things the right way. I admired the man a great deal, so much so, in fact, that when his program fell on hard times in the last decade and many clamored for him to step down, suggesting that at his age (he is now 84) the game had passed him by, I maintained that he had more than earned the right to walk away from the game when he was goddamned good and ready. Because some things are more important than winning and losing football games.

Last weekend my buddy Travis, a talented and thoughtful sports writer, mentioned to me that two administrators at Penn State -- the athletic director and one of the university's vice-presidents -- had been charged with perjury in connection with the investigation into sexual abuse charges against Penn State's former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. I won't lay the Sandusky story out for you, it is by now front and center and you can find out everything you ever thought you wanted to know with a quick and easy Google search. I will tell you that when I heard charges had been brought against two high-level PSU administrators, my first thought was, "This is going to get very, very bad." Still, for another two days, I didn't believe it would get bad for Joe Paterno. I didn't believe that because he was Joe Paterno, the guy who did things the right way. He was an honorable man, and honorable men fail less frequently than other men. They certainly don't fail when the margin between right and wrong is nonexistent.

The details of what went on at Penn State are now coming fast and furious. The facts that appear to be beyond debate are that a grown man was sexually abusing young boys, and doing so for many years. That man continues to assert his innocence, but too much has already come to light for that to be even remotely believable. It is also irrefutable that a number of men -- at least one of whom caught Sandusky in the act of sodomizing a pre-teen boy -- knew what was going on and chose not to report what they knew to the police. Instead, they banished the perpetrator from the sacred halls of the Penn State football complex. They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this man was sexually abusing children, and the best they could do was to get him out of their sight. Get him away from their beloved football program before his behavior tarnished what they held dear. One of those men, it turns out, was none other than the Coach, Mr. Joe Paterno.

I have posed this question to a number of friends this week: if I have never faced a given moral question, do I necessarily have the right to judge another for making what I deem to be the wrong choice? I've never been in Joe Paterno's shoes, confronted with the news that a co-worker and long-time friend has done something abhorrent (or even just pretty bad). I've never been in the position of then graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who in 2002 walked in on Jerry Sandusky raping a young boy in the shower. What I believe about myself is what I think all of us believe about ourselves: that had I been McQueary, I would, at the very least, have gotten that kid the fuck out of that situation. And had I been Joe Paterno, I would not have been even remotely content telling my so-called superiors what I knew and leaving it at that. I believe this of myself because I know that at a certain point it ceases to be about who you are in relation to the victim or the perpetrator, it becomes about what you know. And if you know but you don't tell, you become part of the act itself. For my own sake I answer the above question on that basis. But that only leads to another question: if I understand it this way, and presumably so do most if not all of you, how is it that a handful of men who were in the position to actually do something about it didn't see it at all?

As this story has swirled out of control over the last few days, calls for Paterno's swift dismissal grew from firm suggestions at the periphery to shrill cries from nearly every corner. Late yesterday morning Joe Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of the season, offering to spare his university's board the uncomfortable chore of deciding his fate. To their extremely limited credit, a few hours later that board announced that Paterno was fired, immediately. I say "limited credit" because those trustees still have a tremendous amount of work to do. Because somebody at long last has to step up and own this. Because somebody has to insist there are things that are way more important than winning or losing football games.

Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." I agree with Burke in principle, but I would rephrase it this way: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for otherwise good men to prove they are nothing of the sort.

So much for success with honor. Go to hell, Joe, you fucking bum.

1 comment:

  1. The first part of your post caught me and hauled me right back to childhood. I was suddenly right back in my own living room not far from yours, watching our crappy little black and white, complete with requisite rabbit ears tipped with foil. My viewing lineup looked more like the Dukes of Hazzard and Magnum, P.I., but it got us through. (My mother didn't even get cable from the pole to the house until after I went to college.)