Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

How Quickly It Can Evaporate

And again we have a Scandal of the Week. This one, though, is not nearly as inconsequential or laden with celebrity/pop-culture fluffiness as, say, a Kardashian divorce, an Aniston sighting, or even a Senate prostitution-visit scandal.

This one involves the abuse of children, the conduct of college football instructors, and the sudden collapse of what was considered an almost inassailable career.

 

Joe Paterno, head coach of Penn State football for nearly half a century, has announced that he will retire from that position at the end of this football season. Doubtless it was not how or why he had planned to go.

What I knew of Joe Paterno before this story became a story … isn’t really that much. I’d watched national sports network coverage of college football generally and Paterno particularly, and perceived Paterno as one of the coaches that could be admired much more than many. Some coaches of nationally-known college athletic teams have struck me as possibly decent teachers and human beings; some have definitely not. Some coaches strike me as people whom I would not let my hypothetical college-age, football-playing sons near, whether for reasons of general perceived sliminess or because the coach clearly was more interested in wins and losses and bowl berths than he was interested in helping young people become decent young adults. Some – few, but there have been some – strike me as people who really do have the physical and psychological condition of their athletic charges as their primary concern. (One, whom I imagine I will write about further one day, is Bill Gibbons, head coach of the Holy Cross women’s basketball team. Not only was he clearly a stellar role model for his players, but he was even nice to the band.)

Until this week, I had taken Joe Paterno at face value. Now that I’ve done a little more of my homework, I’m both heartened and disheartened. As it turns out, he did indeed spend more than sixty years doing admirable things admirably, and that’s the heartening part: that I could watch an “up close and personal”, sports-television treatment of a sports celebrity and actually get a fairly accurate portrayal of him. And in the course of being a college football coach, Paterno may have done some occasional things along the way that weren’t so noble – which would mark him as what each one of us is, a regular human being who is not perfect.

But what has shot his career down in flames is far more serious that skirting a recruiting rule or fudging a financial report, and it may actually be better described as what he didn’t do.

Barely more than a week since he won his 409th game as a college football head coach – a record – Paterno’s career has been effectively ended by the revelation of a sex scandal involving one of his former assistant coaches – and Paterno’s knowledge of a specific incident.

 

The incident involved Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football player who joined the PSU coaching staff in 1969 and served as defensive coordinator from 1977 to 1999. In 1977, he established The Second Mile, a non-profit foundation intended to help at-risk youth. And allegedly, Sandusky he went on to use the organization to identify the boys he would then abuse.

Kansas City Star writer Blair Kerkhoff summarized the details of the case. “There’s no question Paterno was told nine years ago that … Sandusky had been seen in the Penn State football building shower subjecting a 10-year-old boy to sexual abuse. The witness, a graduate assistant who has been identified as current Penn State assistant Mike McQueary, reported the incident to Paterno the next day. A day later, Paterno called Curley to relate what McQueary had seen, and university vice president Gary Schultz was informed.

But that’s where the story ended. McQueary was never contacted by police or other authorities. Paterno … testified to a grand jury whose report led to charges that Sandusky sexually abused young boys as early as 1994 and continued through 2009. Sandusky was found to have allegedly sexually assaulted eight boys and has been charged with 40 criminal counts. Curley and Schultz surrendered this week on charges of perjury and failure to report the alleged crimes, and Penn State’s board of trustees said late Tuesday night that it would appoint a special committee to conduct an investigation into the ‘circumstances’ that resulted in the indictments of Sandusky, Curley and Schultz. But authorities have said Paterno will not be charged with a crime.

The legal point isn’t questioned,” Kerkhoff wrote. “Paterno did what was required, and said as much in a statement. But at the heart of the firestorm is the moral responsibility of the men who were told of the incident and knew nothing came of it.”

Sportswriters this week have suggested that Paterno’s legacy was built with the highest of ideals; that he helped Penn State become one of the most recognizable American universities, and that he spent his entire adult life committed to advancing the core mission of his university. On ESPN.com, Ivan Maisel wrote, “Over 62 seasons, the last 46 as head coach, Paterno held his players, his university and himself to a higher standard. The ‘grand experiment,’ as he put it in his younger days, proved that the best college football could be played within the rules by athletes who achieved on the field and in the classroom.”

Kerkhoff added: “Paterno has long been held as a standard of coaching. Honest to the core, tough when required and charitable away from the game, he’s helped build libraries at Penn State, and his teams’ graduation rates are among the nation’s best.” Penn State’s 84 percent graduation rate may seem considerably short of 100 percent; but within the context of all of college football, it outpaces most Division I-A programs by leaps and bounds. In the Big Ten, only one school tops Penn State’s graduation rate: Northwestern University (95 percent).

Maisel continued: “Paterno could be imperious. He certainly could be holier-than-thou. But behind all of that posturing, Paterno stood for the ideals of virtue and honor as expressed through the silly, violent and completely enthralling game of college football.”

And, Kerkhoff wrote, “As the most recent round of scandals touched many of the nation’s top programs — Miami’s booster parties; Ohio State’s tattoos-for-memorabilia fiasco that cost coach Jim Tressel his job; Cam Newton’s helping Auburn win a national title after his father allegedly bid out his son’s services; Southern California’s forfeit of a national championship and Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy — nobody even thought to look Penn State’s way.”

But, since this news story broke late this past Sunday, Paterno’s moral compass has been called into question. The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA, took him to task: “There are the obligations we all have to uphold the law. There are then the obligations we all have to do what is right … (Paterno) should have done more. A man who has spoken with such affection for 45 years about ‘his kids’ failed real kids when they needed him most.”

Maisel picked up the thread: “Paterno failed to grasp the import of what graduate assistant Mike McQueary said to him in March 2002. Paterno, like many in his generation, failed to grasp that society no longer handled such indecencies behind closed doors. … Paterno’s legacy is stained by what he did not do.”

 

The whole situation reminded me very strongly of a Starred Thought® from one of my college band director’s talks: “How quickly it can evaporate.” What he was referring to specifically was how little effort it can take to bring a hypothetical school band program down from heights of success and productivity into depths of dysfunction and low morale, just by the application of a few ill-considered decisions on the part of its leadership.

He was talking to his “Marching Band Techniques” class, full of music education majors who would soon be finding new jobs, possibly at schools with band programs which had been quite successful before they arrived – or which those new directors might turn into successful programs.

Equally, he could have been speaking quite directly to the situation Joe Paterno finds himself in. No matter how many years and how much effort may have gone into building up some institution or other, with great care and leading to deserved success – a band program, a coaching career – it simply does not take much to bring the whole contraption tumbling down. And in this awful case, it didn’t just involve a reduced number of band competitions won, or the amount of cherished traditions discontinued. This time, it involved the physical and psychological well-being of who knows how many children.

Many will lament that Paterno will not have the opportunity to positively affect the lives of any more young adults who happen to be college football players, and that the game of college football will lose one of its most admirable people at a time when those people are in short supply to begin with. In a sports-centric sense, they won’t be wrong. But the fate of the young people who were abused during all those years, thanks to the failure of adults in positions of leadership to carry out their highest responsibilities, are much more important.

After all his glorious carries, it only took one fumble to end Joe Paterno’s career. But that fumble was at the goal line, and it cost him the game – and much more besides.

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November 9, 2011 - Posted by | celebrity, education, Famous Persons, football, news, Starred Thoughts, teachers, television | , , , , , , , ,

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