The Penn State Scandal, A Different Perspective

I've been reading with a little interest some of the reaction to the horrific situation at Penn State. I'm not going to go into the details of the story here, the news is full of it; however, I do notice one angle that has been widely overlooked. There has been a lot of shock registered at the reaction of Mr. Sandusky's colleagues, including the lack of follow through taken by Messrs. Paterno and McQueary after making an internal report to supervisors and University officials, but not to law enforcement. It now appears that Mr. Paterno intends to retire at the end of the season. Frankly, I'm surprised at all the surprise.

For all the talk about "success with honor", why would anyone be shocked that these individuals would refuse by omission to disgrace one of their own? These men have reached a remarkable level of success in a field that has a history of treating its own as above the rules. Why would the rules suddenly matter in this case? Do they even understand what the rules are? In a world that pulls aside young boys who exhibit a talent for playing a game, and exempts them from all of the conventions of normal society...honestly, why is anyone surprised?

Think about it. Once a boy in his teens shows a talent for football (or any sport for that matter, but especially football), he becomes a singular focus, and is made worthy of great praise. Coaches pay special attention, parents reward and foster (because they see future wealth and fame), and there is a great benefit and self-esteem boost to all involved for increasing the talent of the player. In many cases, the young athlete is taught that nothing else matters but the sport. School no longer becomes a focus, teachers are pressured to grant grades not earned, and bad behavior is covered up or mitigated because the athlete is integral to the team. Only the results on the field matter. The individual becomes secondary.

There is a lot of recruiting hype for high school athletes. Most "star" players are catered to at a level unfathomable to a boy of 17 or 18. Most of us know a high school athlete who could barely read but got a full ride to a major university. How many football scholarships are granted to young men who lack the academic capability to succeed at the school that is paying for his "education"? Judging by college graduation rates by football players, many. College is about the sport for these guys. Many college classes are designed for them (most colleges have "football majors"), they have special tutors to keep them eligible, and they are above the realm of traditional students. If they get caught committing crimes or behaving in ways that might get traditional students expelled, the situation is handled, usually without real punishment to the player. They are a special class in a closed society. In many cases, they're not even truly connected to the University at large.

While few of these young men are actually drafted into their professional league, some go into coaching at various levels, and some go home to obscurity. Many of those who do not find success in the sport which has carried them their entire lives to this point, suddenly find themselves subject to the same mundane lives as the rest of us. And...some turn out just fine. But, many don't understand this new normal and turn to drug use, or some various type of illegal escapism. Everyone who knows that dude who can't stop going on and on about when he was a high school football star may be able to identify with the type. The former college football star who doesn't make it is often far worse. Some spend their lives trying to get a break into the NFL via lower leagues. Most don't make it. Many are never productive, and just become pathetic ruins of people.

Those who do manage to maintain success with their sport, whether the route be the pros or via coaching, maintain this exclusive a society within themselves. They are the exalted ones. I don't think we need to discuss NFL salaries or all the reports of unpunished crimes by pro athletes. The highest compensated state employee in Texas is the Head Coach of the University of Texas Football team. Most people will tell you that Coach Paterno was a far more important figure than the President of Penn State. And as people who have had this level of success have spent most of their youth and all of their adulthood in this protected class, they don't know anything beyond protecting the class. Again, they are special. It is them, their fellow players, and then everyone else. They protect their own as they have always been protected. Results on the field are all that matters, and everything else is just minutia.

The rest of us only feed this insanity. The professional athletic society is rarely held accountable for poor behavior, so why do we expect them to suddenly open their inner sanctum and behave properly? Why do we feign great shock when these people hide the misbehavior of one of their own? Their own misbehavior has likely been hidden their entire lives. We as outsiders hold these people up as heroes and role models...because of a GAME. Because the ideal is so superficial, we should not feel loss when the fiction is revealed. The only fault of the athlete is that he believes the hype we bestow upon him. The true and greatest fault is with all of us.

Perhaps if we would treat what they do with the perspective it actually deserves, we wouldn't be having the Sandusky conversation today. We reap what we sow.

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