Saturday, November 12, 2011

Taking Sides

The Penn State story — and it really isn't necessary for me to elaborate on that at this point, is there? — is one that will not go away.

I was talking about it with my father yesterday. A lifelong sports fan, he reminded me during our conversation that, when choosing sides in a game, he ordinarily prefers to support a team rather than oppose one.

It's kind of like voting, really. My parents preferred to vote for someone they admired rather than against someone they despised, but they didn't always have a choice. Sometimes, they had to select "the lesser of two evils."

Dad said that, until the middle of last week, he hadn't decided whether he would root for Nebraska or Penn State in today's football game.

He's always been relatively neutral about both football programs. There are some football teams he just doesn't like, for one reason or another (and some of them go back to things that most people either never knew or forgot long ago), and he pulls against them on a regular basis, but, as I say, he's always been neutral about Nebraska and Penn State.

Maybe it's a regional thing. Dad respects Nebraska and Penn State and their accomplishments. But he was born and raised in the South, and he prefers to pull for a good Southern team any day. Once, when I was in high school, my family went to New Orleans during the Christmas break, and we attended the Sugar Bowl football game. Penn State was playing Alabama, and my father pulled for Alabama. It was a Southern team, and, even though my father was opposed to the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, he didn't hold that against the football team.

Anyway, when we spoke yesterday, he still wasn't speaking about pulling for either team today — but he said he had decided which one he would pull against. Penn State, of course.

I understand his anger and frustration, and there probably were millions of football fans who watched the game and pulled for Nebraska because of what happened at Penn State. (Those who did surely were pleased with the outcome.)

But that wasn't really fair.

Joe Paterno deserves to be the target of people's anger. He is no longer the coach. But he isn't the only guilty party.

The headline writer in me kind of wishes that the perpetrator of the child abuse, retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, had been a basketball coach — because the evidence of his guilt is so great that the case against him appears to be a slam dunk for the prosecution.

He, too, is no longer on the Penn State coaching staff.

But pulling for the team to lose, it seems to me, amounts to punishing the team and the students — and that is guilt by association.

The incident that led to the unraveling of the Penn State coverup took place nearly a decade ago when the victim was 10 years old. Most of the players who took the field today are the victim's contemporaries. Any one of them could have been — and, when all the details are known, it may be revealed that some were — assaulted around the same time.

It may have been blind luck if some or all of them were spared.

If we do not blame the victim — and I have heard no one who has — it is not fair for us to blame his teammates, either (that is, if he became a member of Penn State's football team).

Or his classmates, for that matter. There are roughly 45,000 students on Penn State's flagship campus. At a major university like that, which recruits athletes from across the country, the likelihood that any of your high school classmates would also be your teammates in college is probably very small — but there are bound to be some of your high school classmates in the general university population.

I grew up in Arkansas, in a town that was more than a bump in the road — but it wasn't a city, either. My graduating class set a school record — which is bound to have been eclipsed, probably on more than one occasion, since then — with slightly more than 300 graduates.

I went to college at the University of Arkansas, the largest campus in the state, and its enrollment at the time was about one–third of Penn State's on–campus enrollment today. I encountered at least one–tenth of my high school classmates there, either in class or in the campus bookstore — or at a Razorback football game.

I even knew some of the people who played in the band at the football games — so I know it is more than possible that the young man has run into people from his hometown if he is part of the Penn State student body.

Whether that young man is now a student at Penn State or not, though, his contemporaries there held a candlelight vigil last night for him and the other victims.

Well, they did it for themselves, too. There can be no doubt that, after the week they have endured, the students desired closure — and a return to semi–normalcy. Some also probably wanted to relieve any feelings of guilt they may have.

But I think they also wanted to express their solidarity with the victims in some way.

They weren't to blame for what happened — or what was done to cover it up. They should not be made the scapegoats.

No comments: