I’d love to talk Mariners baseball with you, but something a lot more important is going on right now in State College, PA. The scandal involving the Penn State football program and former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky took another surreal turn tonight when supportive crowds gathered outside the home of head coach Joe Paterno and cheered him on in pep rally form.
Unfortunately, this type of bizarre behavior is hardly unprecedented. We saw it during the infamous Ford Bronco chase involving O.J. Simpson when people stood alongside the highway lifting signs that read “Run, O.J., run!”
We saw it in a standing ovation for Kobe Bryant the first home game he played after being accused of raping a woman at a Colorado resort. Bryant later had the charges dismissed, but the crowd at the Staples Center that night was still cheering a guy who, at the very best, had committed adultery towards his young wife.
And I saw the same psychology play out right here locally last February, reading comments on some blogs in the wake of Milton Bradley being arrested for making threats against his wife. When the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office opted to proceed with a mediation type of program involving the couple, rather than criminal charges, some local Mariners fans suggested giving Bradley a standing ovation when he was introduced for the home opener.
Interesting. An ovation for what? A dispute with his wife that got so nasty that police had to be called?
And now, we have a crowd consisting largely of Penn State students outside Paterno’s home cheering him on for passing the buck in dealing with a longtime assistant and friend now accused of heinous sexual crimes against young boys. For doing the bare minimum that was legally required of him. At a time he was the most powerful and influential figure at the school.
Coming to this country from Canada, I was thrilled to become a part of the sports obsessed culture here. I cover baseball for a living. I’m a football fanatic, up every Sunday at 8 a.m. on the West Coast to begin my day of NFL watching. I love having access to all two dozen (or so) ESPN channels to flip around to at my leisure, something we didn’t have north of the border. Am addicted to Madden on my X-Box and have my car radio tuned to as many sports talk stations as possible. Fly around the country in the off-season, paying my way into sporting events I’m not assigned to cover.
But the one thing I still find a little foreign is the whole worship of college and high school athletics thing. Where I’m from, the colleges often play in front of friends and family and would love any media attention they could get. They don’t expect the type of blanket coverage and fan adulation that even the weakest college teams in the United States now view as their birthright.
I realize it’s a cultural thing and the country I’m from just doesn’t have that history. But the people in this country also have to understand that no other place in the world spends as much time and money as we do here obsessing over teams and athletes that are still amateurs. Yeah, they get a bit crazed over junior hockey in Canada from time to time. But not to the extent that I’ve seen drooling parents and boosters here get when it comes to 15-year-old high school football players, never mind their college brethren.
It is what it is, but now, that obsession we have with pre-pro sports is playing a part in the Penn State scandal. The recurring theme that keeps coming up is how Paterno had amassed so much power at his university that he essentially answered to nobody. That people were fearful of making independent decisions on-the-spot because of the political ramifications of not discussing them with Paterno first.
This type of thinking has been spotlighted for decades when it comes to NCAA violations. Only now, we’ve got something a lot more serious. Now, we’ve got police allegations that defenseless boys were sexually assaulted while the adults around them did little more than stand around talking about it.
So, yeah, this is way worse.
This cuts to the very core of what we believe as a society. We believe it’s wrong to rape little boys. And yet, this system we’ve created, where a football coach can become the most powerful figure at a publically-funded university, allegedly helped enable egregious acts to go unpunished for over a decade.
That’s just plain wrong. And the people now cheering Paterno like a rock star are an embarrassment.
There’s been a ton of talk the past decade about how we, as a country, have lost our way. We’ve been devastated by the housing crisis and the subsequent economic collapse due largely to fraudulent practices. Are being eclipsed internationally in business, education and health care, while getting bogged down domestically by partisan politics. We obsess over celebrities while showing minimal interest in the political process and changes to laws that could impact us greatly down the road.
Hey, nobody’s perfect. And we’re not going to reverse it all overnight.
But the one thing we can do right now is to try to reclaim our moral compass. We can do a better job of understanding the difference between right and wrong. That the ends don’t always justify the means. That we need to do more than the minimum. That looking the other way isn’t always an option. That there isn’t one set of rules for Wall Street, or Capitol Hill, or football coaches and assistants, and different ones for everybody else.
It used to be so easy to grasp as kids. But now, I’m not so sure.
And if nothing else, maybe this scandal at Penn State can finally cause us all to hit the brakes and reclaim something. That little voice inside our heads that is supposed to guide us, both individually and collectively.
It may never change a system where we make college coaches some our highest-paid state employees, or analyze high school football players on national television as if they’re NFL veterans. But it can lead to a place where supposedly intelligent college students aren’t standing outside a coach’s home cheering him on for doing as little as possible to stop an alleged predator of young boys.
Those cheering students are the future of this country. They may turn out to be in a minority, but they’re still attending a highly-regarded academic institution subsidized by taxpayers. And they just failed their biggest test yet.
But no, it’s not a surprise. Just look at their role models.