The Mess at Penn State

It is not a short list of coaches who have fallen from grace, but perhaps none of the names on the list is more fascinating than Joe Paterno. Woody Hayes gave every indication that one day he was going to go too far. Bobby Knight went too far with regularity, but won too many games (and had too many supporters in the caveman element of society) for it to cost him his job until the results started to decline. But Joe Paterno didn't just lack black marks on his record - he was the one whose spotless record was his legacy. The Grand Experiment was held up as Joe Paterno's gift to college football, an example that you could do things "the right way" and still win.  

It was always a bit of a crock. Penn State wanted us to believe that other programs had never followed the rules, had decent academic standards and continued to win. Certainly, other programs have at times bristled at the arrogance of Joe Paterno and his supporters, the same way many fans of "race music" bristled at the notion that Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley created rock 'n roll. But even if the Grand Experiment was nothing new, it was at least something, right? 

Or was it? Was it ever real, or was Joe Paterno just the Wizard of Oz, pulling strings to make sure we never got to see the man behind the curtain? 

In the early 2000s, when Penn State's slide on the field was accompanied by a string of off the field incidents, there were two easy storylines to follow, and obvious conclusions to draw: 
1. Joe Paterno was getting too old to run the program, and the losses and the discipline problems were both the result of a figurehead coach and a leaderless program. 
2. Faced with mounting losses and scared of losing his program (or being forced to step down) Paterno was cutting corners in recruiting and in discipline. Now he was reaping the just rewards of those decisions. 

A little of this, a little of that ... 

Those of us who were paying close attention not just to the string of incidents, but to Paterno's responses, started asking if maybe we were blind to a bigger truth. We started to wonder if the discipline problems and combative attitude towards outside (including police) intervention were always part of Paterno's DNA, and what we were seeing in the 2000s was Paterno's anger that he no longer had the juice to overrule those who rightly had the final call. 

Paterno openly chastised the police for following athletes in the hopes of finding them misbehaving, and pined for the good old days when a drunk driving football player would be brought to Joe Pa's house to sleep it off.  And now, aside from the e-mails which seem to clearly indicate that Paterno was at least in on if not the driving force behind the desire to address Sandusky 'in house', we have also heard testimony and seen e-mails indicating that Paterno had a long history of rallying the PSU administration around his efforts to stonewall criminal investigations and protect the program from outside forces. Most alarming, we have an outside counsel reporting that Paterno threatened to kick players off the team if they agreed to speak to the campus disciplinary team about the Anthony Scirotto incident. 

So in light of these new revelations, it's time to revisit the attitudes expressed by people like former PSU grad assistant Matt Paknis. Paknis forcefully testifies that even 30 years ago The Grand Experiment was a public relations campaign more than anything, that it was less about Paterno running his program "the right way" and more about Joe Paterno having the juice to kill stories which would reflect poorly on Penn State. It was, in essence a marketing campaign. 

In the end, this scandal ends up not being a black mark on Paterno's record; it risks being a total and thorough invalidation of Paterno's record. It makes us stop and question the very thing that made Joe Paterno a legend. 

We should not fall into the trap of suggesting that the Grand Experiment failed after 35 glorious years. We should instead question whether we were all suckered into believing in an image of Joe Paterno that never was accurate. 

I suspect that it's a little of both. Good intentions to begin with, grossly exaggerated by loyalists and them embraced by Paterno and Penn State, corrupted over time by pride and power. That's the read I get, though others may have different ones. 

That's an important conversation to have, but there's also the practical issue of what happens with Penn State football going forward. 

Joe Paterno was rightly fired and has since passed away. It's unlikely the Athletic Director and President involved will ever hold important roles at Penn State again. So what more should Penn State do, and is there a role for the NCAA?

I am sympathetic to the arguments put forward by some that this case goes so far beyond athletics that for the NCAA to sanction PSU is almost trivializing the crimes. And I can understand the argument that this was a criminal act by a *former* coach, and therefore outside the mission of the NCAA. 

I'd disagree. 

For all the talk about football players and March madness, providing a safe and constructive environment for young people is arguably the core mission of the NCAA. Parents entrust their children to a university and a sports program, and the program in turn promises to take care of them, educate them and help them mature. What Penn State has done has utterly undermined everything the NCAA stands for and tries to do. And it happened because Penn State allowed football to become too important, it allowed a football coach to wield too much power and it allowed preservation of their image to take precedence over morality and ethics. 

And how inverted have Penn State's priorities become? You have fans that would rather see the existing university embroiled in an existential crisis than even admit the partial culpability of one departed coach. You have a newly elected member of the Board of Trustees who has taken to public message boards to angrily denounce specific, individual posters who have dared to admit they think Paterno was at least partly responsible. 

The NCAA has a role here. I don't know exactly what they can do, but I know what they have to do: Penn State has to be forced to de-emphasize football. 

What that means is hard to pin down. It isn't scholarship losses or forfeiting wins; those are competitive penalties. I don't think it's the "death penalty". That is throwing the baby out with the bath water. What's needed is cultural change at Penn State, an enforceable long term change in their priorities, not a competitive disadvantage. 

I expect Penn State, with the help of the NCAA (the help coming in the form of a gun to PSU's head) to institute various "Human Resources" changes. New oversight infrastructure, counseling and education, etc. But that's hardly sufficient. Such subjective initiatives will only have the desire impact if the university as a whole (the administration, the football program and the supporters) understands the problem and the correct priorities. It is a Catch-22: that approach will work exactly when that approach is not needed. 

I don't know what else the NCAA can do, but it has to find something, something that flat out forces them to shift their priorities. 

Joe Paterno and Penn State always wanted to be an example to the rest of college football. Here is their chance. 

Posted: Monday - July 02, 2012 at 06:14 PM