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Football as a backdrop for something broader in scope.

November 10, 2011

I never thought I would find myself fascinated with a football story. It’s not a sport I follow (I don’t really have time to follow any sports), but I have been glued to the growing reports surrounding the Penn State child abuse controversy.

And it’s not because of the football angle, either, though the popularity of the sport certainly plays a role in what is keeping our collective attention fixated on the story.

What we have is actually a Shakespearean tragedy unfolding before us. A king, a 1-percenter in his field, an untouchable has been shown to have feet made of clay. Joe Paterno had been the ruler of his domain for the past 46 years and amassed a winning record that no one is likely to topple. So, why will his name go down in infamy, despite his enormous career successes?

Because Paterno didn’t do enough as a person, and in the end, that is what matters. After decades of preaching the values of good sportsmanship on the field, integrity and displaying a winning behavior no matter what life hands you, Paterno has shown that his words were hollow pep talks that he doesn’t seem to have believed. Or at least, he didn’t feel a need to follow.

Otherwise, why would he feel that the barest minimum that he did, reporting an instance of sexual abuse involving a minor, was enough? Why wouldn’t he have followed through to make sure that no other children were injured physically and emotionally?

We can ask the questions, but we can’t answer them. In a way, it’s like asking the average Germans of the 1930s why they didn’t speak up when Jews started disappearing from their communities; yet, information I learned from a Holocaust museum in Nuremberg said that less than 2 percent of the entire population actually did anything to stop the genocide that eventually occurred in their own country.

Shakespeare deftly handled the toppling of such seemingly noble figures while showing the effect they have on the lives of those they touch. Scenes of student riots after Paterno’s firing were like watching the crowds react in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination, as the Elizabethan playwright depicted it.

Hubris, blind devotion, an unwillingness to accept the truth of the situation, the devotion to football above the education that Penn State supposed stood for  — the whole panoply of emotions and intellectual issues is both epic and enormously personal. You could see David Lean give it the “Lawrence of Arabia” treatment or Terrence Rattigan form it into a companion piece to “The Winslow Boy.”

Someone — or, more likely, a great many someones — will be retelling this story in plays, television dramas and movies after the images have cleared from news programs and newspaper pages. The story is far from over. The list of children affected is said to be growing. The trials of those charged in relation to the abuse lie in the future (and all could be found innocent).

In the meantime, we are left to think about the responsibilities we have to our neighbors. It’s not a popular topic with some, in an age when you hear even isolated cheers for the death of those who didn’t bother to buy health insurance. But if we don’t follow through when we encounter injustice, especially against our youth, we harm the society in which we hope to live in peace. Paterno is learning that lesson the hard way, and he’ll likely mull it over for the rest of his life.

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From → #CMC11

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