Two weeks ago I had the occasion to discuss with friends the relative merits of various athletic programs around the nation which provided me the perfect opportunity to praise one of my long time heroes and programs, Joe Paterno and Penn State University. My argument was how could you not laud a man who had spent almost a half century of his life as head coach at the same university compiling a winning record unmatched in college football totally free of scandal and sanctions, all while achieving a 90% graduation rate among his players. In fact I had planned to make that remarkable graduation rate the subject of a separate blog. However, all of that well deserved record of achievement came crashing down with the subsequent revelations this past week about alleged child sexual abuse by a member of his coaching staff over a period of several years dating back to at least the late 1990's. If ever there was a living example of the adage that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation, but only one mistake to destroy it, this tragedy certainly qualifies.
While there probably will be many further revelations about this situation before it is over, at least the powers that be at Penn State have taken immediate and decisive action to remove all of those individuals connected with these horrendous acts, including even those who committed sins of omission by not contacting the proper authorities at the time they supposedly occurred. No doubt everyone involved in this particular incident will eventually pay a heavy price for the misdeeds that have revealed a darker side of major college sports which Susan Page of USA Today terms a "conspiracy of silence". In fact "Buzz" Bisinger, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Friday Night Lights and columnist for the The Daily Beast, minces no words in his opinion of this "closing of ranks around their own", going so far as to call it the "evil" within college sports and comparing it to the Mafia's code of "omerta". You can read his column and the various responses which followed at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/11/10/joe-paterno-and-penn-state-s-code-of-omerta-in-the-sex-abuse-scandal.html. He also has proposed a total separation of sports from academics in which collegiate athletics would be licensed to schools that would pay a set fee for teams playing under their banner. Under this arrangement players could even be paid for their services, something I have heard others suggest. Frankly, I do not know how all of this would work, but if nothing else comes out of this mess, maybe there will be a re-evaluation of all major college sports and the potentially corrupting influence of the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow into these programs each year.
One thing that should be remembered in all of this is that Penn State University has a long history of following the motto of Success With Honor. Adherence to that motto was never more proudly displayed than last night's student prayer vigil on campus for the victims of this past abuse, and continued through today's difficult, emotional and heartbreaking 17 to 14 loss against Nebraska. The game began and ended with a huge outpouring of support from 100,000+ students and fans for their home team and coaching staff, even including a gathering at midfield of both teams and staffs before the game to pray together instead of apart. Coming back from a 17 to 0 deficit, the Nittany Lions fought back and actually had a chance to either tie or win the game, but time simply ran out. So, in the end, this sordid affair is not about one person or even a group of people, as they all can and will be replaced. Rather, it is about a storied institution, its history, heritage, traditions and the manner in which they plan to move forward. From what I observed today watching that game which ended about a hour ago, that healing process has already begun and Penn State will emerge much stronger as a result, further achieving that Success with Honor.