Nebraska at Penn State … This Could Be Telling

“When you coach as long as I did, you can’t help but miss those Saturdays – dealing with the players, the game preparation, the challenges, the excitement” Tom Osbourne (former Nebraska head coach)

Sometimes it takes time for the shock to soak in, before it can even start to wear off. When the Penn State scandal broke last week, my first reaction was “holy cow, I didn’t see that coming.” Perhaps a day later my reaction, when hearing that Paterno may have know something (anything really) was “wow, I bet this will be his last season.” It was perhaps a day later that I said “they might fire him before this weekend’s game against Nebraska.” Maybe another day before I said “they have to fire him – there’s no other way.” The avalanche has not ceased.

I don’t know of anybody who is moving in the direction of harsher to lighter punishments – but I know plenty of people who are moving from lighter to harsher punishments. The latest calls have been for a full house-cleaning … fire everybody associated with the football program. Another notion that is starting to gain more backing is a self-imposed football “death penalty” – perhaps just for the rest of this season, or perhaps for another year or two after. I’m not indicating that I support this position, but I will say that it’s very possible I would move in that direction instead of away from it.

The students don’t get it – but that’s fine, they’re young kids who often make irrational judgements. They were upset that Paterno got fired. But imagine what would have happened if he had walked out onto that field later today against Nebraska? As one commentator noted, imagine if you or a family member were a victim of Sandusky’s treachery, and you saw a man who could have stopped it stroll out to coach football as if nothing happened? Sure, he wouldn’t be acting like nothing happened (he hasn’t acted that way, issuing several regrets and mild mea culpas). But to the victims, it would appear an awful lot like football, and the Penn State empire, is more important than justice. Sure the students don’t get it, but if Paterno coached Saturday then it would sure as heck look like nobody got it.

It may not even matter that Paterno is gone. It may not even matter that Mike McQueary is now gone too (and is apparently in hiding). The game may well be surreal. It will be the first time we’ve seen the Nittany Lions in action since the story broke. It is possible that just seeing them on the field will feel wrong. There are going to be quite a few protests outside the stadium, and perhaps even some conflict (though I sure hope the fans are not silly enough to dismiss the rage of the offended).

Let’s recap, to put those feelings in perspective. Over the past decade or more, Jerry Sandusky (allegedly) sexually assaulted (anal rape!) multiple underage boys. He found these boys through a charity he founded for “at-risk” youth. Let’s reformulate that. Sandusky started a charity for youth from poor backgrounds who likely had no father in the house, and thus needed a father figure in their lives and were far less likely to turn down his advances or report him to the authorities. At various points during the decade-or-more, Penn State officials and the football program had a chance to fully expose the crimes, bring the perpetrator to justice, and save future victims from harm. They did not. Why?

Some, like the janitor who witnessed crimes, didn’t want to lose their jobs. That is, they felt convinced (whether rightly or wrongly) that exposing this crime would have resulted in a blight on the football program and induced retribution (e.g., getting fired). Some, like McQueary, didn’t want too … well, I suppose he just didn’t want to rock the boat. Surely he understood that calling this out into the open would have turned things upside down – in a program he very much wanted to be a part of. (Now, that may not be the only reason that McQueary acted the way he did. The shock of it all really could have thrown him for a loop. Not for 8 years, of course, but for a few days perhaps.) And why did Curley or Schultz, when presented with these severe accusations, not press the issue with authorities? Well, they were directly related to the football dynasty, and knew well what damage this would do (and has done).

In all of these cases we have people who knew that doing the right thing, and defending the innocent, would severely disrupt something they wanted badly (a continued football dynasty).

How do you fix that problem? Well, you start by getting rid of some people, showing them (and presumably everybody who is watching) that you cannot cover these things up, and that defending the program above justice will not get you what you want. The other way, and perhaps the more complete way, is to destroy the very thing that they wanted protected. This is the proposal now being bandied about the sports commentator world. Destroy the program. Destroy the dynasty. Dismantle the source of blinding power that allowed these tragedies to continue.

I still hope it doesn’t come to that. I love college football and Penn State is very much an iconic part of that. But things are now in motion that could end up with the end of Penn State football for some time. We haven’t seen the end of this. There are, I suspect, more egregious revelations to come.

I do think the game today against Nebraska will be telling though. Just seeing the football program moving ahead could turn enough stomachs to move things in a more aggressive direction.

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