Full disclosure: I’m a guy, and I love sports. Competition gets my blood boiling. Whether it is running on the treadmill next to an unsuspecting opponent, or getting together for a “friendly” pickup game at the gym, all guys know what this is about. So it’s not surprising to me that I chose to attend Penn State University after visiting and heading to a football game. While academically it was a good school, it’s a bit naïve to think that an 18-year-old guy wouldn’t be enamored with a 100,000+ person event centered around football multiple weekends in the fall. Granted, I later transferred from Penn State and finished college elsewhere, but the sports experiences I had there were second to none that I’ve ever been a part of.
Part of the reason that we love sports so much is because it is a way that we escape. We put ourselves in the players’ shoes and continue to live the dream of playing a game for a living until we are 20, 30, 40, 50, or even older. Sports provides us a series of great moments that are, in reality, meaningless, yet in our minds, relevant. We enjoy the game, the competition, and the fleeing moments of excitement associated with witnessing an amazing play or event.
That being said, as good as our use of sports is as an escape mechanism may be on a Sunday afternoon for relaxation purposes, it is no paradigm through which we can look at life, and it is not a safe haven that shelters well-known personalities from facing consequences of real controversies that take place in the real world.
The thing that has bothered me most about the way that some of the sports media has covered the Penn State situation in the wake of the release of the Freeh Report findings has been the way that discussions of Paterno’s “legacy” has been handled. Quite a few references that I saw and heard focused on his achievements as a football coach – using sports to some degree as a buffer through which people should remember him when considering the current facts that have come to light relating to Jerry Sandusky.
This story is so much bigger than sports, and to diminish the magnitude of what we have learned to a discussion of how a football coach will be remembered when his name is brought up because of his football accomplishments blows my mind.
When I learned that the Board of Trustees decided to leave the statue of Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium standing, I was upset. More upsetting, though, was the following quote from one trustee: "You can't let people stampede you into making a rash decision. The statue represents the good that Joe did. It doesn't represent the bad that he did." That’s the logic the public is supposed to hang their hat on in this situation?
If Paterno were a well-regarded collegiate professor, would the discussion be centered on the textbooks that he had contributed to and the number of minds he helped shape for future careers? I doubt it. Just look at the reactions towards Spanier, Schultz, and Curley, men who were tangentially involved in this mess, just like Paterno, yet do not have a slew of athletic related accomplishments to distract the narrative regarding their “legacies” as faculty of the university.
Extend this a bit further – CEOs and CFOs of public companies who engage in fraud and financial statement manipulation are for the rest of their lives viewed as pariahs and thieves, with no attention paid whatsoever to the thousands of jobs they helped create before the manipulations took place, or the economic stimulation that they helped to provide in running a business. Rightfully so – business and economic contributions do not provide us with warm and fuzzy feelings in the wake of such scandals.
Yet, in this instance, sports accomplishments and charitable donations are being used as qualifiers in any Paterno discussion, and will seemingly continue to be part of the narrative. How is this possible? How in the world can we, or the Trustees for that matter, honestly say that this “good” is what should be driving the discussion in light of what we know now?
I don’t know all the particulars of what happened during the series of travesties that have been unveiled over the past several months. Frankly, I’m not sure that I really want to know. But what I do know is that the way that this is being covered by certain media outlets reveals a serious flaw in the way that we look at the games we love, and should really cause us to think.