Friday, November 11, 2011

Role Models

Everyone has an opinion on the tragedy at Penn State.

I've been trying to avoid jumping in because, frankly, the pool seems pretty crowded.

But, when you get past the posturing and the judging, it still comes down to one thing, even though that one thing often seems to get lost.

Children were victimized by adults — in the original assault and in the effort to cover it up.

They are the victims — not Joe Paterno, not Jerry Sandusky, not Graham Spanier, not anyone in Penn State's administration — although, in true football fashion, there's been plenty of misdirection.

And even some who have defended the actions — or inactions, if you prefer — of the adults.

I have known about this matter for only a few days, and my conscience won't permit me to remain silent any longer.

But silence has been the problem at Penn State, as it has been in other organizations, for a long time.

In fact, until Penn State dismissed Paterno for not doing anywhere near enough after he became aware of his assistant's crimes, it seemed that the university would do as others have done — and conclude that protecting the institution is more important than justice for children.

Our society talks a good game when it comes to protecting children — but it is rare when a mafia mentality of circling the wagons and protecting one's own, even when one's own is clearly guilty, does not take over, and the code of silence descends on all.

In schools. In churches. In athletic locker rooms.

The really heinous part of this is the betrayal of the faith that children place in authority figures — like parents, coaches, pastors and teachers. Children don't always outgrow that absolute allegiance, either. Some adults continue to revere the authority figures from their childhoods long after those authority figures are revealed to be less than superheroes.

(My understanding is that the assistant who witnessed the assault waited a day before taking it to Paterno. He had to consult with his real father first.)

Those relationships have lives of their own, and so do violations of that trust. They live on, influencing others in due course. Whether one prays or not, the victims deserve whatever support we can give them. Most, if not all, will struggle with this for years.

Paterno, in an attempt to appear gracious after his dismissal, urged everyone to pray for the victims, and, on the surface, that does seem to be generous and compassionate.

But "JoePa," the father figure for countless young men, was not being selfless. He was being selfish.

It was face–saving misdirection.

A football coach to the end, he tried to fake out everyone with a little play–action that would give the appearance that he still called the shots. He would leave when the season was over — which, presumably, would have included the Big Ten Championship Game (if the Nittany Lions qualified for it) and perhaps the Rose Bowl.

That would have been the proper way for college football's winningest coach to exit.

He was still trying to exercise control in a situation where he had no more. He lost his credibility when he abandoned his responsibility.

And it is to the credit of Penn State's trustees that they were not faked out.

I have heard it argued by some that it is not always easy to know what to do, that Paterno may have believed he did what was expected of him, and I will concede that point. But JoePa was obliged to do more than the minimum. He occupied a special place in the state of Pennsylvania, not just Penn State.

In most places, a coach does not have more power than the school president, but coaches like Paterno do. With such authority comes an obligation to go beyond the very least that you can do. There may have been acceptable reasons for his actions — and, more significantly, his inactions — but that does not excuse the fact that, when he was told that a member of his staff had assaulted a child, he was obligated to do more than pass the buck, and he did not.

Maybe there was a time when he understood the special role he played in molding the lives that were placed in his care — perhaps, early in his tenure at Penn State, when he watched Woody Hayes strolling the Ohio State sidelines in three encounters in the 1970s.

I thought of Hayes when all this surfaced about Penn State. Hayes was another role model from an earlier era whose career came to an abrupt end under less than ideal circumstances — when he punched an opposing player whose interception secured a bowl game victory for his team.

Everyone always knew that Hayes was a volatile drill sergeant kind of guy, a human volcano, barking out orders and demanding that his players give every ounce of energy to the cause. His bark may have been worse than his bite, but nobody wanted to hear his bark.

Even so, Hayes was considered the kind of man that young men could look up to, and countless fathers wanted their sons to play football for him.

That changed in the blink of an eye.

A role model is expected to do more than talk the talk. He is expected to walk the walk, too.

I guess I first thought of Hayes' case in relation to Paterno's when I heard people say — as I have been saying for years — that Paterno should have retired a long time ago. I was reminded of something I read when Hayes was dismissed.

"People keep saying that Woody Hayes is a great football coach who overstayed his time," wrote the great Red Smith in 1979. "This implies that there was a time when slugging a member of the opposing team was proper coachly deportment."

Or that there was a time when it was OK for a coach to pass the buck when his assistant — who was, for a time, regarded by many as his hand–picked successor — sexually assaulted a child in the locker room.

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