Beyond Paternogate: Are we really Penn State?

Head Coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions pushes his way through a group of his players during a timeout in a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

As the Penn State sexual abuse case continues to unfold, we stand back and watch the parties try to make sense of it all. And in the wake of a "who knew what and when?" inquisition, rhetoric flies, heads rolls, and the victim's soul-piercing trauma is never, can never, be offered the full empathy it deserves. On Veteran's Day, President Obama, en route to San Diego to watch a college basketball game on an aircraft carrier, weighs in on the allegations, calling them "outrageous if true." Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Corbett, an ex-officio member of the university's board of trustees, has flown to State College to help with damage control. And an under-informed student population, perhaps seeking anything that resembles "a cause," riot in protest over Joe Paterno's excusing.

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"This is a first for a college football program," one talking head claimed, and "unprecedented events take time to sort out." Guess again.

The powerful place and effect of collegiate football programs has been under popular and political negotiation since 1905 when 18 college players died of traumatic injuries as a result of the brutal playing style. President Teddy Roosevelt, whose own son was hurt playing the newly-popular game, intervened and convinced coaches and administrators to reform the game. But in the case of Penn State, it's not about paternalism or Paterno. It's partially about the over-arching and emotionally-lethal effects when the power of a game is appropriated by those who would wield it for personal gain.

And mostly about those who are victimized in the wake.

The accused Penn State coach, Jerry Sandusky, stands as the evil lightening rod that brought light to the shocking failure of others who, in the truthful cliché--if they didn't know, well...they should have. But we might argue that by extension, why should any of us, including the Penn board of directors, be surprised? Paterno and his lieutenants have a revered status at Penn State. On any D-1 university campus the highest paid individual is often the Athletic Director or the Head Football Coach. Less we forget the notion of Greek hubris, where supreme confidence bleeds into self-god appointment, is not only reserved for those who take the field.

"Football today is a social obsession," Shailer Mathews, dean of the Divinity School at University of Chicago, told us in 1918, "a boy-killing, education-prostituting gladiatorial sport. It teaches virility and courage, but so does war."

Mathews, for his part, is calling for balance and rationality in collegiate sport. But nearly a century later, when colleges and universities increasingly look for alumni support catalyzed in the success of their teams, we ask if the collateral damage--from abused children and young adults to near-illiterate student-athletes--is justifiable.

Joe Paterno, it seems, is being offered some quarter for his advancing age and his years of contribution to the university. But along with the accused victims, we might bring light to the hallowed place of college football on campuses that were designed to foster knowledge and critical thought in a safe and trusted environment, not to run multi-million dollar sports programs.

"I do not know what should take its place," Mathews continues, "but the new game should not require the services of a physician, the maintenance of a hospital, and the celebration of funerals." Add education, monitoring, and counseling to the list.

Scott Tinley, a retired professional triathlete and two-time Ironman World Champion, writes about fallen heroes and teaches sport humanities courses at San Diego State University. His book Racing the Sunset: An Athlete's Quest for Life After Sport explores the world of pro athletes in transition.