I love sports and have my whole life. Ask anyone who knows me. But thanks to my upbringing, I have never been one to lose perspective where athletics are concerned. My grandparents never let me think for a second, for instance, that playing was as important as studying and the lesson stuck. The state of big money college sports appalls me. That our society clearly values the contributions of jocks more than it does educators explains a lot about why we find ourselves in the predicament we’re in politically and economically. Millionaires and billionaires being unable to figure out a way to divvy up the GDP of Barbados has gotten so commonplace that you wonder why it’s even news.
So the Penn State sex abuse scandal, which last night claimed the jobs of university president Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno, at some level feels like more of the same. Sure, it involves a school that has historically run a clean athletics program (as far as we know). And the most visible player in the drama is hardly a fly-by-night with a suitcase full of cash. Unless you’re at least in your 70s, you have no real memory of a Nittany Lion football game without Joe Paterno on the sidelines. We toss terms like “epic” and “icon”around pretty casually these days, but JoePa is, by any definition, a legitimate sports icon. When you hear an outraged student being interviewed on ESPN saying that Paterno is Penn State football, that student is right. He or she may be wrong about a great many other things, of course…
In 2003, the St. Bonaventure University community was rocked by what OnlineColleges.net ranks as the seventh worst scandal in American collegiate sports history. I joined the faculty of that university the following year, after the school had cleaned house. I hadn’t paid much attention to the uproar when it happened. I knew about the Bonnies’ proud history, but a scandal at a small school in the A-10? Eh.
I arrived on campus, though, and began to meet people. The subject came up – invariably. I had a PhD from the University of Colorado, which was just above SBU at #6 on that list, providing a nice topic for polite conversation. I quickly came to understand that what had happened the previous year was more than just a little dustup in the hoops program. I realized that it had taken a serious emotional toll on the entire community, and you didn’t have to be a basketball freak to be affected. It was so bad that the chairman of the SBU board of trustees had taken his own life.
In short, the members of that community were in mourning. A couple of stupid people, trusted leaders who should have known better, decided to play fast and loose with a university’s reputation (and in that community, Bonas is the absolute center of the community’s life). When things blew up, people who prided themselves on character and integrity felt humiliated in front of the nation.
What happened in Olean, New York in 2003, of course, wasn’t a fraction as bad as what the Penn State community has to confront, though. It’s sort of like dealing with the loss of your beloved grandfather, except that your grandfather probably wasn’t complicit in covering for a pedophile.
I know a lot of people with Penn State ties (including my close friend Brian Angliss, one of the co-founders here at S&R). Some are obviously hurting, others are enraged, but all are stunned. All feel betrayed, and I don’t think any of them can quite believe that the institution they have always been so proud of is now a 24/7 media spectacle because one of its coaches is alleged to have been the lowest of the low and that the men entrusted with the integrity of the school’s most visible arm chose, at most, to live up only to their basic legal obligations.
I don’t think PSU is an outstanding institution because of its football program or because of the legacy of Joe Paterno. I think it because of the quality of the human beings that the school has produced. And because of that, I know this community will bounce back better than ever. Yes, St. Bonaventure and the University of Colorado, along with the Duke lacrosse team and the Georgia basketball team and the SMU football program, which was the first to receive the NCAA’s “death penalty,” and the other five schools on that list of infamy will all be moving down a notch, because what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did and what his superiors allegedly enabled is hands-down worse, by far, than any other scandal in American sports history. But the university will redeem itself.
In the meantime, I offer my condolences to all the men and women of character and integrity who are or have been associated with Penn State. I know you’re suffering in ways that most people around you don’t fully understand. And I know most of you are further bewildered by the behavior of some of the students last night.
But we don’t judge the school according to a few bad examples. All schools have those. We judge the school, instead, by you, and by that standard you should feel tremendous pride.