The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
--W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"
Leaving Bryant-Denny Stadium last week, after watching the worst overtime series ever presided over by a quarterback not named Clausen, after watching kick after kick after kick fall short or wide (or both) of the goalposts, after watching the man in charge of it all watch all that too yet still choose to play for overtime, after watching your team's clear path to the national championship whither to a statistical improbability on par with it raining peppermint candy, you would think, "well, this is about as low it it can get."
Then through the haze of cigarette smoke, on-the-make funk, and high-grade bourbon fumes mingling together at Egan's, you see the words "child rape" scroll across the ESPN ticker and you realize how spoiled--truly, wonderfully, luckily spoiled--you are.
There are few things in life that quickly steer a course correction toward proper perspective like hearing that one's team's one-time, long-time defensive coordinator--a man so revered by the locals that he has, or had, a spot in a mural and was once believed to be the chosen heir for the lifetime, living legend coach--was caught ass-raping a ten-year-old boy in your team's showers.
Or at least, one would hope so.
Sadly, this didn't happen at Penn State. Not for a long time. Not, for the sake of at least eight young men, soon enough. Not, arguably, even today. Whatever else comes to light as Jerry Sandusky goes to trial, it's evident today that Penn State football suffered from an isolation of power, a "close the ranks" mentality that shut out the distractions and responsibilities of the outside world and focused solely on maintaining the prestige of the program.
Reading through the grand jury's findings, as an eye-witness's account of "anal rape," person by person, level by level, becomes diluted and euphemized until it is rendered "horseplay," one sees a clear concern for prioritizing the program's reputation over the welfare of the victims.
I have heard it said that this level of cover-up is almost inevitable considering the money college football brings in. Bullshit. Look at the students rioting on Penn State's campus last night. Look at the ticket prices as they rose and fell amid rumors that Penn State's game against Nebraska might be Joe Paterno's farewell. The money was never in danger.
This isn't about cash. It's about control.
Granted, had Joe Paterno looked at the university president and thought himself more capable to deal with Sandusky, that would be one thing. Having dealt with university presidents, I can tell you from experience that such a leap of imagination is easy to make. And, after all, surely a well-connected Italian can still make someone disappear, even in this enlightened age. However, he did no such thing. His code of silence remained in his football program.
Some defenders, even while toppling news vans last night, have argued that Joe "did the right thing" by informing the athletic director. Hardly. He did "a" right thing, which in its solitude and subsequent inaction became wrong.
Ask Joe, ask his weeping wife, practicing fish-eaters both, what a sin of omission is. Ask them how Sandusky was allowed to bring his torture victims, his prey, to the locker rooms for years. Ask them how he was allowed on the premises as recently as last week.
The acts themselves birth my horror, but my disappointment comes from seeing Joe Paterno, "Saint Joe," the emblem for "success with honor," take the path of convenience.
Last week, in advance of The Game of the Century (TM), Allen Barra wrote,
We all know it's silly and immature to seek self-esteem through identification with your college football team. We all know that football is far from the most important thing that any university should be judged by.In the trade, this is known as "kidding on the square," as he is too clever by half and only half joking. In Alabama, we know this feeling all too well. Surely some of that is at the root of the ruckus-raising student body at Penn State, but that is merely a momentary explosion of a lingering downside to Barra's diagnosis: when the team does well, the fan receives undeserved joy by their proxy effort; when the team does poorly, the fan carries that defeat like a stone.
Or rather, we say that we know these things, but deep down we know that all of the above is a lie.
There exists a certain type of sports journalist who despises this relationship, sniveling, joyless hacks who make the world no better by their presence in it. They will find any excuse to harpoon that unearned high they feel fans divine from collegiate athletics, football in particular, in much the same way a temperance union decries whiskey. Last week, their target was the meaningless hype leading up to the LSU game, now they have the grotesque details of the Sandusky scandal, each feeling the need to out-outrage one another.
Their outrage, feigned or not, is deserved. Yet, in their self-righteous chorus, I find little comfort and no hint of understanding. Some have called Sandusky worse than a serial killer. I wonder, does this imply that his victims would be better off dead? That their undoubtedly shattered lives, were they be to pieced together somehow, would be unlivable? Does this competition of professional outrage only encourage the reprehensible silence that hung over those at Penn State?
But when it comes to the firing of Joe Paterno, these jackasses are not made one iota more tolerable by being 100 percent correct.
For the entire week, the rare voices I heard speak of this scandal without hyperbole were those coming from advocacy groups that work with victims of child predators. To them, the silence--from Mike McQueary to Joe Paterno onward--was an all-too-familiar sound. When given a choice between dealing with the sordid terror in front of them or wishing it didn't exist, too many people shy away.
Does that make their silence any more tolerable?
Let's settle the matter on that fucking stupid question: One of the holy relics held aloft in Penn State football is their practice of not displaying player names on the backs of their jerseys. No one player is more important than the team, goes this thinking, and, as such, no individual names are displayed. They are each a Platonic ideal of a football player: Player 26, Player 14, Player 55...
Forever more, Penn State football will be linked with another set of nameless young men: Victim 1, Victim 2, on up to Victim 8. Each one was deemed less important than the team. And, at this writing, rumors are that the number will grow.
Throughout the week, I have heard talk of the word "legacy" as is inevitable. And I have seen and heard former Nittany Lion players take to the airwaves, confused and dismayed. There is much one could say about Paterno's legacy, much that one could say about the positive influence he has had on half a century's span of players and beyond.
I have heard that type of talk come from the now-aged Bama players when they speak, never of "the Bear," but always "Coach Bryant."
I hear it now and then when Nick Saban speaks of Don James.
I saw with my own eyes when Rolando McClain stood in front of Saban's statue and talked more about "becoming a man" than the national championship ring on his finger.
There is a long list of men in college football who have no resume of success other than the lives they have entered and, therefore, made better. It pains me that today I can't add Joe Paterno's to that ledger.
There is no joy in Happy Valley.