The erasing has begun at Penn State, the kind of erasing dictatorships are so good at. The president is gone. The legendary football coach is gone. The athletic director and a vice president have resigned. Soon enough, they’ll probably be taking down Joe Paterno’s statue, though maybe not as roughly as the Iraqis took down Saddam’s.
It’s all about damage control and spin in Happy Valley now. Of course, that’s what got the school in this mess to begin with. When it first received reports that a former football assistant, Jerry Sandusky, might have been sexually abusing young boys on campus, its main concern wasn’t the victims, it was protecting the university and its storied football program. Forget the kids. It’s the Penn State brand, the Joe Paterno brand that are important.
This is what happens when, over the course of Paterno’s almost inconceivable 46-year career, your football stadium grows from 46,000 to 106,000 and a sport that used to be played on “the Old Main lawn” becomes king. You might win games, but you risk losing some of your humanity in the process – enough to think your job might take precedence over your obligations as a responsible adult.
The way Penn State handled the situation, you would have thought Sandusky had merely gotten tipsy one night at a University Park bar and sideswiped a parked car on the way home. So it is in the world of damage control and spin. Even accusations of child molestation – and worse – can be plea bargained down to a misdemeanor.
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, William Deresiewicz dubbed the current era “Generation Sell.” He wasn’t talking about Penn State – in fact, he didn’t mention college athletics at all – but he easily could have.
According to Deresiewicz, “The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan. … We’re all in showbiz now, walking on eggshells, relentlessly tending our customer base. We’re all selling something today, because even if we aren’t literally selling something (though thanks to the Internet as well as the entrepreneurial ideal, more and more of us are), we’re always selling ourselves. We use the social media to create a product – to create a brand – and the product is us.”
The Penn State brand has always been balance – balance between the playing field and the classroom, athletics done right. The Paterno brand, meanwhile, has, over the decades, edged closer and closer to the Mother Teresa brand. Those are two pretty powerful brands, brands that have raised the profile of the school and, until now, made it stand out amid the amorality of college sports. They’re brands worth preserving, but not at any cost. Not at the cost of ignoring charges that one of your assistant coaches sexually abused children. Nothing, not even the platinum-plated brands of Penn State and Joe Paterno, is worth that.
The runaway greed on Wall Street has made us wonder what they’re teaching at Harvard Business School. And the endless succession of scandals in college athletics has made us wonder what they’re teaching in all these sports management and sports administration programs across the country. Are they just turning out androids who will behave, in the face of crisis, like Penn State officials did – as if no human interest could possibly trump the interests of the university and its coach, as if there were no larger society out there, beyond the school’s cast iron gates?
Colleges are supposed to be places of learning and truth-seeking, not damage control and spin. But at Penn State, they allowed a football program – a bunch of guys running around after a prolate spheroid – to undermine that. Like Roy Riegels, California’s All-America center, in the 1929 Rose Bowl, they got turned around and began heading in the wrong direction – toward profits and away from the greater good.
It’s going to take a heck of a selling job to remove the tarnish from the Penn State brand – somewhere, you’d think, between a decade and an eon. Then again, maybe I’m underestimating the abilities of Generation Sell … or the forgiveness of football fans. Still, I’d be surprised if these words about Virginia Tech AD Jim Weaver appeared in his biography on the Hokies’ website much longer:
“Weaver brings a ‘Penn State mentality’ to the position. He says that various schools’ interest in him as a reformer through the years can be traced to [his time at] Penn State and its reputation for how it conducts business in intercollegiate athletics.”
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Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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