(CBS) – It’s with some, solemn pride that I say that I’ve been a de facto voice of the Joe Paterno opposition.
Ten months ago, when winds of the Jerry Sandusky horror blew through America, bringing with it and leaving behind horror, deception, and denial, many partisan parties scrambled to defend their own.
In particular, a frothing faction of our populous – whom I’ve often described as the Paterno Apologists – dug their ditches and fought furiously to shield their aging, decaying, dying hero.
Forget the facts, or at least the brewing storm of circumstances leading directly at the iconic coach. He was their man. Indeed, for four or five decades, Paterno was the one constant in their lives. Wives come and go, children leave the nest, our hairlines recede, but “JoePa” – the avuncular avatar of Penn State football – was always there for them.
Penn State football was more than a game; it was an ideal, a weekly panacea for the soul, wrapped in family, foliage, and Americana.
Until it wasn’t. It seemed quite logical to some of us that the omnipotent Paterno, who knew if his backup linebacker was cheating on midterms, would also know his top lieutenant was raping boys on campus.
But no, we had it all wrong. Sure, Sandusky was a monster, and the Apologists would make a cameo in denouncing a pedophile, but not if the echo from the chorus stained the Paterno domicile.
And even if Paterno had some oblong connection to the cover-up, he was only one cog in a quartet of Penn State power brokers who knew too much and did too little.
Then Louis Freeh ruined the whole darn thing. He had to go and interview over 400 people, and issue a 267-page treatise on the moral vacuum formerly known as Happy Valley. And it was clear that Paterno not only knew about Sandusky, but also stopped his titular bosses from reporting Sandusky to the law.
And hence the world finally, and almost universally, accepted that had he not died, Paterno’s next uniform would have been an orange jumpsuit.
Then Penn State, always slow on prudence, finally gave in to public outrage and removed the statue bearing Paterno’s visage, jogging from some, bloody, muddy gridiron, forefinger flexed in the air, mission accomplished. Victory is relative, even in football.
Then the final debate swirling around water coolers, cubicles, and roundtables, was the fate of football itself in State College.
Would the NCAA, so hard on the swollen expense account, kickback, booster, and roosters of big-time football, stalk Penn State with equal fury?
It seems so. At least we can hope. Rumors, those elusive whispers always spawned by someone nameless, faceless, and gutless, tell us that the NCAA will do something about Penn State’s inexplicable and inexcusable lethargy over Sandusky. The New York Times reports that the NCAA will hold a press conference Monday to address Penn State v Mankind.
The diminishing holdouts, battling like soldiers in Berlin or Okinawa, unaware that the war was lost, insist that this matter was not the NCAA’s domain. The governing body’s sole role was to vaporize any school guilty of gaining a competitive edge through chicanery.
They really said this. Child rape is ugly, for sure, but let’s not get crazy and compare it to a few Ohio State players who traded memorabilia for free tattoos!
If the NCAA is sincere – and that can always be questioned – then the hammer must double as a guillotine, gutting Penn State football forever, or at least the contemporary equivalent. The punishment cannot be cosmetic or symbolic. There must be palpable, financial wreckage. Some crimes are forgivable and some criminals can be forgiven. But Penn State need not apply.
And for the remaining, vocal Paterno Apologists who say that the new coach and “the kids” who just enrolled to play football at Penn State – funny how “the kids” are so important now but weren’t when Sandusky was raping them – are paying for their predecessors’ malfeasance, well, big deal. Lane Kiffin is paying for Pete Carroll’s crimes; Urban Meyer is paying for Jim Tressel’s transgressions; and anyone who has replaced John Calipari knows about sweeping legal debris off their respective programs.
If it were just a matter of punishing the guilty parties, then every school would simply fire the offenders before the long arm of the law grabbed them.
It can’t be that facile. Just like that bronze, burnished salute to Joe Paterno, both statues and statutes matter, for symbolism and our psyche.
Since Penn State’s brass betrayed us and, far worse, countless raped kids for 14 years, let’s start by banning their football program for 14 years.
No matter the sentence, it will never be commensurate to the pain Sandusky and his henchmen perpetrated, but it still matters. We can’t always get an eye for an eye, but we can help heal a child’s soul. And maybe someone can build a statue commemorating the occasion.
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