On the off chance you were herding yaks in Uzbekistan last
week and missed the news: Joe Paterno is no longer the football coach at Penn
as he is affectionately known, had been the Penn State coach since 1966. During
that span, his teams won 409 games. But that couldn't save the 84-year-old icon
from being fired for not doing enough to report allegations that his longtime
assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was a pedophile.
has been indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys. He has been
charged with seven counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse —
that is to say, having raped boys.
appears at least 20 of the crimes Sandusky is charged with took place while he
was working for JoePa at Penn State. Sandusky retired from coaching in 1999. In
2001, he published an autobiography rather creepily titled, Touched: The
Jerry Sandusky Story.
The abrupt ending to Paterno's storied career appears to
be a form of collateral damage inflicted by the Sandusky affair. It wasn't
anything Paterno did that got him in trouble, but that he didn't do enough. When
told in 2002 that Sandusky had been seen raping a boy in the Penn State locker
room, Paterno duly reported the incident to the university administration and
went back to the business of being a legendary football coach.
of this scandal broke across the bow of the national media like a tidal wave.
This wasn't just a sports story, but a national morality play involving heinous
sex crimes, betrayals of trust and a beloved father figure — all played
out against the backdrop of football, our nation's most-hyped pastime.
the football connection, it's doubtful this story would have received
wall-to-wall coverage. On Nov. 4, for example, an eerily similar case involving
allegations that a culture of pedophilia permeates high school swimming on the state
and national levels was relegated to The IndianapolisStar's Metro and State section, along
with stories about the Bands of America Grand National Championship and bus
fees in Franklin Township.
football has become tantamount to a kind of church in this country. The stories
of players and coaches are packaged as parables about enduring pain and making
sacrifices, the power of individual will and the importance of teamwork. Games
and plays are endlessly analyzed in exercises melding brute force with an
almost hyper-rational attention to the details of technique. Coaches, teams and
players are judged according to their abilities to do what we mere mortals
rarely, if ever, accomplish: control their destinies.
wonder, then, that the Penn State scandal has been compared to the sexual abuse
scandals that continue to rock the Catholic Church. In both instances the
behavior of coaches/clergy is seen as taking place in a privileged zone somehow
beyond the laws that govern the rest of us. As another legendary coach, the
all-but-sainted Vince Lombardi, famously was attributed to have said, "Winning
isn't everything, it's the only thing."
grew up in a Great Lakes state. Football here can seem as natural a part of the
autumn landscape as the falling leaves or the vivid blue that heightens the sky
at this time of year. As kids, we played tackle and touch football wherever we
could find a grassy space big enough to give us room. I loved playing those
games and, like a lot of other people, I got hooked on watching the NFL.
was back when the (Baltimore) Colts' biggest player — and one of the
biggest players in the pro game — was Ed "Big Daddy" Lipscomb. Lipscomb
was considered a mountain of a man at 284 pounds. Players were built more like
the rest of us in those days.
league's championship game wasn't "super" yet. Players earned extra money by
selling insurance or opening restaurants or car dealerships. They were well
compensated, but teams weren't made up of millionaires. We fans had yet to
anoint the NFL and, by extension, the college game that feeds it, as our
national metaphor, the crystallization of our obsessions with size, violence
fixation with the game has turned it into a corporate powerhouse. Cities with
NFL franchises wear a kind of corporate imprimatur that signals a place where
business can be done with the willing cooperation of state and local
governments. Communities lobby the NFL to host the annual Super Bowl through a
process by which it is the league that judges whether or not a city is worthy
for its championship game. And when that game takes place, the stands are full
to the rafters with members of the so-called "1 percent," the country's
executive class, who see on the field a self-congratulatory dramatization of capitalism
game was never meant to carry this weight. It is, after all, a game. But our
insistence on seeing it as something more has led to such excesses as
cathedral-like stadia and, at a university like Penn State, athletic
departments that actually overshadow the schools they are associated with.
Students there rioted when they heard of JoePa's firing. Their team was 8-1 at
the time and undefeated in the Big Ten standings. What could be more important