In University Park, Pa., a couple of Penn State students are guarding the statue of Joe Paterno — lest a mob forms, bearing sledgehammers, and takes justice into its own hands. It ain't exactly Occupy Beaver Stadium, but the symbolism is there.
Representatives of the Paterno family, meanwhile, are poring over the multitude of materials released in the Freeh report, which turned a harsh light on JoePa and his unwillingness to deal with former assistant Jerry Sandusky's pedophilia. That's right, the charges against the late Nittany Lions football coach will be investigated much more thoroughly than the charges in 1998 and 2001 that Sandusky forced himself sexually on young boys. There's symbolism there, too.
So when we ask, "What are the lessons of Penn State, of this Crime That Dare Not Speak Its Name?" you have to wonder whether there are any lessons, whether college football — or college football fandom — will change in the slightest. After all, if the Sandusky Scandal tells us anything, it's just something we already knew and chose to ignore: that the sport is seriously out of whack. That coaches wield too much power. That universities are unhealthily reliant on football to raise their profile, stimulate alumni contributions and cover the cost of nonrevenue sports. We've known this, if we want to be honest about it, since the University of Chicago sounded the first alarm by dropping football in 1939.
Dr. Wallace Loh, the president at Maryland, said it not long ago: "Intercollegiate athletics is the front porch of the university, the most visible part." And football is the light above the doorbell, visible far down the block. College administrators never want that light to go out, of course, for fear their campus will be plunged into darkness. (Think Europe in the sixth century.)
Which is why the Sandusky situation was handled the way it was. It wasn't about the preyed-upon kids, it was about the primacy of the football program — and the name above the title, the legendary Joe Paterno. That was what had to be protected ... at all costs. Well, now the bill is coming due, and the university is finding out what "at all costs" means. Penn State football has been reduced to rubble, and JoePa's reputation along with it, because of the school's stupefyingly warped sense of priorities. University Park is the new Three Mile Island; the cleanup could take decades, if not forever.
But again, does anyone expect anything else to change in the Wild West of college football? It hard to imagine. Coaches will continue to reign supreme, with near-absolute authority over their programs. And university presidents will continue to kowtow to those coaches, especially if their team brings glory and profit to the school.
If you doubt this, consider what Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said last week, the day after former FBI director Louis Freeh and his investigators released their findings. In a radio interview, Anderson stuck up for Randy Edsall, saying the Terps' under-fire football coach "came in where the circumstances were a no-win situation for him." As if that weren't enough, Anderson added, "[T]he way things happened and transpired, whoever I was bringing in here was probably going to have difficulty unless it was Jesus Christ, to be honest with you."
Does anybody think Anderson is being honest with us — or himself? Edsall took over a program that had gone 9-4 the season before under Ralph Friedgen. He also took over a program that returned its quarterback, ACC Rookie of the Year Danny O'Brien. Plenty of coaches who aren't "Jesus Christ" could have done better with the material on hand than the 2-10 record Edsall produced. "No-win situation"? Please.
But that's how it is in the culture of college football. Excuses are made even for coaches who go 2-10. Multiply that by 46 — the number of years Paterno presided at Penn State, winning an FBS record 409 games — and you get a pretty good idea of what it was like in University Park. The tail wagged the Lion.
Penn State, I'll just point out, opened its doors in 1859. It wasn't until 1887 that it fielded a football team. It was a place of higher learning, that is, long before it was an NFL supplier. Somehow, though, at universities all across America, the chronology gets skewed — to their everlasting shame.
And regardless of the fallout in University Park, which might even include the so-called Death Penalty, college football figures to carry on as it always has. Rah rah.
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