Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dismantle the Program, Not the Statue

By now I assume you know that this Jerry Sandusky-Joe Paterno-Penn State thing has gotten stuck in my craw.

As a former coach, I just can't get past the selfish arrogance of Joe Paterno and Penn State's administration in covering up Sandusky's crimes. If there was any doubt that Paterno knew of Sandusky's perversions and did little or nothing to stop them, those doubts ended with last week's publication of Louis Freeh's report commissioned by the school's Board of Trustees. 

Not only did Paterno know, but Freeh concluded, he actively participated in efforts to hide Sandusky's crimes and predilictions from authorities and the public. A series of emails exchanged between school President Graham Spainer, Vice President Gary Schultz, and Athletic Director Tim Curley makes it clear that the three intended to call child protective services regarding Sandusky until Curley had a conversation with Paterno after which Curley wrote to the others that he wasn't "comfortable" proceeding with the report to authorities.  Not only did Paterno know, but he was the ringleader in the cover-up.

Now the talk is whether Penn State should take down a statue of Paterno that is outside of Beaver Stadium. But the statue is just a symbol of the program under Paterno's reign. The more important object that requires dismantling is the football program itself.

The other discussion taking place is whether the NCAA should punish Penn State for irregularities resulting from the Sandusky mess. Some think the issue is outside of the scope of what the NCAA investigates and punishes schools for - usually academic or recruiting violations. But the NCAA also punishes schools for "lack of institutional control". In fact, it is for that reason that it shut down the Southern Methodist football program in the 1980's.

How can institutional control be any more lacking than when the chief administrators and football coach/icon make the conscious decision to protect a pedophile and expose dozens of young boys to his predatory ways, all for the sake of preserving the reputation of their supposedly pristine program? How can institutional control be any more absent than when school employees, from part-time janitors to the Athletic Director, will not report a heinous crime like rape for fear of incurring the wrath of the head football coach?

The NCAA needs to send a message with its investigation and punishment of Penn State. Not so much to that school, which seems (too late) to have gotten the message (with the exception of Paterno's family, which continues to rely on an alternative history yet to be constructed in insisting that it will somehow restore JoePa's good name). Rather, the message needs to be sent to all the other NCAA Bowl Championship Series (I think that's what it's called now) administrators and coaches to emphasize that no one is above the law, no matter how revered they are or how much money they bring into the institution.

I saw an interview of former Florida State head football coach Bobby Bowden in which Bowden stated that he thought the NCAA shouldn't punish the Penn State program now. His reasoning was that because the bad actors are now gone sanctions would only punish student-athletes and coaches who were not at the school when Sandusky's and Paterno's acts and omissions occurred.

That specious argument could apply equally well to any violations that occur under a former head coach who is given the boot or leaves before he is caught (Butch Davis at UNC, Rich Rodriguez at WVU come quickly to mind). The whole point about "institutional control" is to not allow football coaches to become autonomous rulers of their little fiefdoms, answering to no one else.

Others complain that Penn State football is an integral part of school life and to take it away will damage to the school when it needs "healing". Again, isn't that the point? Shouldn't someone enforce the notion that football shouldn't be the central focus of any true institution of higher learning? And isn't the someone in this case the NCAA?

Let the Paterno statue stand as a reminder of the good and the evil that he brought to Penn State. But as for the program that he managed and mismanaged, it's time to take it down. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Let's Call it Courage

There are a lot of critics and pundits and journalists who object to the use of terms like courage and bravery and honor when it comes to sports. Sometimes even athletes join in, noting in interviews that the "real heroes" are those who serve in the armed forces or try to raise families on minimum wage incomes, or fight fires or walk a beat.

I too am sometimes off-put or even offended when sportscasters breathlessly whisper about an athlete's courage in playing in a game despite an injury or after the death of a loved one. This discomfort is heightened when athletes and coaches use military terms to refer to the games in which they participate.  No matter how difficult or grueling or against all odds a contest may be, when you go on to a field of play you are never going into battle.

But there are moments in sports, unlike almost any other endeavor other than war, in which courage is truly shown. One such instance occurred Sunday, when a soccer player made an appearance in the last five minutes of a match between the Seattle Sounders and the Colorado Rapids.

Steve Zakuani had been severely injured in in a match against the same opponent 15 months earlier. In April of 2011, Brian Mullan, a midfielder for the Rapids, tackled Zakuani hard near the touchline. Zakuani's foot caught beneath him and he fractured his right fibula and tibia. Zakuani was told by doctors he would never play soccer again. Mullan was suspended for 10 matches.

Through a long and painful rehab, Zakuani maintained a positive outlook, which he continued to demonstrate during the match (he was only on for about six minutes, but there was at least one slide tackle challenge -- not from Mullan -- that had me holding my breath) and afterward when he and Mullan embraced and exchanged shirts.

Zakuani and Mullan embrace, before trading shirts.

To make it through that grinding recovery, then step on to the pitch with the player who had maimed him (Zakuani had long before forgiven Mullan and Mullan, to his credit, showed genuine remorse from the start) can only be called courageous. Zakuani may or may not, ultimately, fully recover from his injury. But I can't imagine that anyone is not rooting for him to do so. And I can't think of any word that more aptly describes his comeback, and his actions, than courageous.

And as for the Sounders' fans, if you need any affirmation that the United States is becoming a soccer nation, just take a listen. Eddie Johnson, the Sounders' forward who has played in the English Premier League and Championship, Greece, and Mexico, in addition to MLS, said of the fans: "Man, that's the loudest I've ever heard it. that's the loudest I've ever heard a stadium." 

The whole video's almost nine minutes long, but stick around for the first minute and a half, when the Sounders' fans chant "Steve!" "Zak-u-ani!" back-and-forth. If that don't raise the hair on the back of your neck, nothing will.