So, last week the Penn State Football Program Sex Abuse Scandal (aka the Sandusky Scandal) broke, again, this time as the Paterno Scandal. An independent investigation found that Joe Pa (may he rest in peace) knew more that he ‘fessed up to last fall before he died. Which has led to debate about what to do with the Joe Pa tribute statute at Penn State and generally a (probably long overdue) reflection on the culture of college football, as well as another black mark on the Penn State program generally.
So much to unwind. Let us first examine Joe Pa himself. Born in 1926, a member of the WWII generation, a bona fide veteran of that conflict, who then went on to distinguish himself as a player on the field. He was a product of a generation very different from mine. A generation venerated rather than reviled, a generation tested on the battlefield, rather than the political arena. A generation of racial segregation, women topping out in the workplace as secretaries (if they got there at all), a generation of distant dads, lefties punished for using their dominant hand (sometimes violently), where college degrees were rare and graduate degrees even rarer. A generation that believed, and still does, fervently in Authority, and the unswerving value in following Chain of Command.
He hired Larry Sandusky and worked with him for years before reports rolled up to him that there might be something wrong. And accounts confirm that Joe Pa did initially pass this information up the Chain of Command, to no avail. What then? Well, in 1926 and 46, and 66 and even 76, no one really did anything about stuff like child abuse. That’s the stories we hear, right, from all the survivors? You tried to say something and no one did anything or the abused kid was punished? If any action was taken, it was a quiet transfer of the perp to another part of the country or some such. I don’t think it is so much that Joe Pa didn’t think it was a big deal, I think he just did way more than a product of his generation would typically have done, and what he did was what a product of what his generation tended to do.
So here’s a thought—what if Joe Pa had retired at 65? That would have been, like 1991 or 1992, years before the Sandusky problems were first reported. Or what if he had taken that moment, following a glorious 1994 (an undefeated season and Penn State’s only Rose Bowl victory to date) and retired. Said to himself, that was a good one, and things are getting weird, and I’m like, 68, time to Moon Walk out of here?
A focus on What Joe Knew When does though, tend to gloss over broader issues of what exactly was going on at Penn State in those years (which include right up to last year) and take the spotlight off some living, breathing types who could have done something with what was going on. At the end of the day, Joe Pa was Joe Pa. He was at his core, a footballer, a coach, not really a University Administrator, not one of the boring, bow tie wearing guys who makes sure all the clocks are on time. Joe Pa was not the Disciplinarian, he was by definition the Discipline Case. There should have been someone watching him and there should have been someone Watching the Watchmen.
So the system fails and all but my Cynical Generation are surprised (shock and awe) by what Mr. Freeh and his Peeps now say happened. :S See, a lot of stuff got changed in this country between 1965 and 2001. Slowly, yes, in fits and starts, an evolution, but it did change. And yes, aspects of it were awkward and corrosive and clumsy and felt like a waste of time. But they weren’t. That was the whole point. That the psychological well-being of a group of kids is worth protecting and some big shots ego get’s bruised? Well, society did a format change and determined the kids were more important. Sorry Big Shots. I know that was a huge wind up for you. You were used to being more important that anything. Uups.
So, we reexamine Joe Pa and his legacy and the legacy of the Penn State football dynasty and we take college football generally down off its Pedestal for a bit to polish off the grotty bits and maybe see if it is time for something a bit different. One option would be a recentering of the game on the Game as a Game. And realizing that the health, well-being and future of athletes (and staff) should be the primary concern, and any necessary rule changes, game scheduling, equipment changes, etc, necessary to protect players needs to happen. And that players need to be guaranteed a realistic shot at getting a real college education out of their college years. To make sure they have a Future, regardless of their future in the game.
Which is a hard thing for a Packer fan to admit. Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe people come first, because there is always next season.
As to what to do with the statue? Hard to say. Maybe move it—how about in front of the Main Administration Building as a reminder of what those guys are supposed to be actually doing? Maybe leave it where it is—much of Penn State’s football glory came in the years before the Sandusky Activity, the Team’s (and Paterno’s peak) was really before that. In a course of events that has engaged the entire country and all of college football, I think maybe that one should be left to Penn State and its Alumni and fan base to make for themselves as part of their own healing process.