Monday, July 23, 2012

It's not about the statue

It's not about the statue. It's about how Joe Paterno as a person, how Penn State and the NCAA as institutions, and how we as a society deal with power and its abuse.

Look... it's a crappy statue. Joe Paterno was more than this cartoon expressed in bronze. At his best, he stood for excellence on the football field and for the role sports and academics can play in shaping character.

But we know that Joe Paterno was less than his best. Choosing his program, his salary, and a coverup at the expense of children raped by his buddy is a character flaw which pretty well overwhelms anything else he did in his job.

Behind his statue was the legend "Educator, Coach, Humanitarian." Humanitarian is off the table. It was certainly within his power to protect the vulnerable kids who suffered sexual abuse by his colleague Jerry Sandusky. As an educator, at this point Mr. Paterno serves principally as a lesson for how moral failures have a way of catching up with you. As a coach... I feel sorry for the people that he did well by, who now know that some part of their experience with him was compromised by his pursuit of success at the expense of others.

It has been noted how Coach Paterno, a practicing and prominent Catholic, may have been affected by the Church's failure to do the right thing. His diocese, like Mr. Paterno, chose cover-up, protecting the insiders who perpetrated abuse rather than protecting the children in its care. They chose a short-sighted (and ultimately wrong) strategy of trying to protect the institution rather than standing with the victims. It's an old story, choosing to avoid confrontation and scandal. But scandal is to be welcomed if it comes in pursuit of justice. "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness..."(Matthew 5:10).

Joe Paterno will be remembered at Penn State. But the time for celebrating him is long past.

But it's not about the statue. Those in positions of responsibility will be happy if people think that taking down the statue or "harsh" sanctions to Penn State football is the end of the story.

It is reported that the NCAA will punish the school for its complicity in the abuse perpetrated by Mr. Sandusky and covered up by Mr. Paterno and high-level university officials. But when mega-money and prestige are at stake there will always be the temptation to overlook "collateral damage."

This is going to be true tomorrow, whatever the NCAA does to Penn State today. Big money college football relies upon the exploitation of young people, who expose themselves to injury, who are often physically damaged by the sport, and who reap little financial reward. The institutions profit from their labor and from their pain, giving the student athletes occasional glory, but keeping the money. Unfortunately, what Mr. Paterno and Penn State did was completely in character with the kind of system they were running. That is what needs to change.

UPDATE:
That the NCAA's response is about damage control and protecting its franchise and brand is seen in several respects. 1) Immediate "extraordinary" action without following its normal procedures. 2) Stepping far afield from its role in policing college athletics to "cultural change". 3) The gratuitous step of attempting to re-write history by stripping college and coach of wins after the sexual abuse came to official attention. The NCAA wrongly identifies the "cultural problem" as located in the outsized role of the coach, rather than the outsized role of football and football money in what are otherwise educational institutions. A modest suggestion for further changing the culture of big money college football: how about the NCAA supplement the $60 million victims' fund with its share of revenues from Penn State televised games, bowl games, and merchandise licensing for 1998-2011?

See "N.C.A.A. Gives Penn State $60 Million Fine and Bowl Ban," Pete Thamel, NY Times, 7/23/12; also "Penn State penalties," Rana L. Cash, Sporting News, 7/23/12.
 

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