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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Penn State

Where to Begin

There is an old story about the very last in a long, long list of speakers at one of those interminable political dinners that go on and on into the wee hours. This last guy finally gets his chance to stand before the crowd and all he can think to say is that “everything that can be said has been said, it’s just that not everyone has said it.”

I feel that way about the Penn State scandal. It seems like this story, and the commentary about it, has been with us for a year rather than a little more than a week. Maybe it’s all been said, but here goes.

There is much tragedy here; indeed almost Shakespearean in its scope. The young men abused and likely marked for life by their ordeal. The legendary coach brought low because of his inattention or something worse. The public institution in the glare of intense national attention struggling to right itself. The appalling violence by students reacting to the news that Coach Joe Paterno had been sacked. The palpable sense that Paterno stayed too long and could have with a few words and even fewer actions taken greater responsibility or perhaps have even prevented a tragedy.

American football fans – and I’m one, occasionally – love the mythology of the college game. “Student-athletes” giving their all for old State U, the stern college coach – think Rockne or Bryant – giving the inspirational half-time speech, the cheerleaders, the spectacle, the perfect Saturday afternoon in the fall. But, increasingly those myths seem like shiny Hollywood gloss on the NCAA football story. The historian Taylor Branch’s recent investigation of college football highlights many of the problems and in light of the Penn State story deserves to be read as a forecast of more troubles to come.

The lessons from the Penn State story are many and none very good. It’s said that Paterno, the Ivy Leaguer, with his decades of football success, helped drag Penn State from a dumpy state school to a legitimate research university. That might even be true, but it begs the question of just what events emanating from Happy Valley over the last 10 days have anything to do with higher education?

College football at the Penn State level is pure and simple about the money. Paterno’s program earns $50 million annually for the college. Joe Pa is Penn State football and he rode the juggernaut all the way to a grand jury.

Seems to me the key thing to watch in the next few days is whether fundamentally anything changes at Penn State – or elsewhere in college football – as a result of the child abuse scandal. Great universities are supposed to be places of exploration, discovery, renewal and reflection. Time is wasting on any and all of that at Penn State. In this case, actions really will speak louder than words.

A real statement of Penn State’s values would have been to dedicate the revenue from the school’s last three games to a child abuse prevention or counseling program. The school could announce today, as Joe Nocera and others have suggested, that it won’t participate in a bowl or championship game this year and then cancel the entire 2012 season in order to review – top to bottom, side to side – what it wants from its intercollegiate sports programs.

If Penn State wants to reclaim it “core values” as its acting president has said over and over again, then it needs to stop, assess, look back and reflect.

Ultimately a former assistant coach will likely be held to account for his alleged crimes, but a higher education institution built on a foundation of the myths of the college game must do more, much more, to reclaim its soul.

Don’t hold your breath.

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