By Jason Keidel
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Suffice it to say we’ve never witnessed a week like this in sports history.
When we eulogized Joe Frazier, we realized he was taken from us way too soon, sadly, and suddenly. But eulogies can double as celebrations. As Randy Gordon told Joe & Evan, it was perhaps the first day in the legend’s life that the dialogue could be entirely about him, a singular tip of the cap to the champ without spending equal time on Ali. A shame Smokin’ Joe had to die to have his day, because he gave us so much and asked for so little. So while we were universally heartbroken, we may smile at his memory.
Then the week turned to the sick and surreal, with another icon dying, though in every metaphysical way. Joe Paterno and his acolytes took a strange, deranged oath to protect their bread-and-butter brand at the expense of safety and sanity.
When I wrote on Wednesday that this scandal had nothing to do with sports, that State College was merely the wallpaper behind an unrelated tragedy, I was wrong. If you’re a football junkie, your youth is a montage of pigskin memories, from the first time you tucked that huge ball in your short arms to watching games, finding a favorite team and dreaming you’d join them someday. So this new paradox is most penetrating.
Penn State’s exorcism has begun, removing the formerly paternal Paterno and his titular boss. But, frankly, the cuts are cosmetic, not to mention they replaced a Penn State lifer with another Penn State lifer (Tom Bradley), who, eerily, assumed Sandusky’s job in 1999. Since Sandusky’s crimes are so atrocious, we wanted a famous head to roll from the campus. We got it, but little has changed. This story, so hideous that every bottom has trap doors, has barely begun.
Each daily detail drips like a poison into the public’s soul. On some level, we understand that creatures like Sandusky exist, at least in the abstract, the way we know there’s evil in the world. And we know that his victims never had a chance to be children, and will spend a tragic amount of time in therapy, on medication, or both, because an evil man imposed himself on them, shredding an innocence that most of us so thoroughly recall and relive in ourselves everyday.
Paterno said he’s eager to address the media. Really? He harbored a serial child abuser and now wants to tell us all about it? When Paterno issued his missive about hindsight and then implicitly ordered the board of trustees to back off, he was defiant to the end. And there’s little to imply that he will find religion after he was fired.
And he can’t play the age angle, can’t flash his Medicare card in a geriatric round of “No hablo Ingles.” You can’t coach an 8-1, top-20 team, but be too old and obtuse to forget the details of your D-Coordinator. Paterno is the avatar of a grotesquely (if not criminally) odd Omerta, with all the trappings of a morally corrupt (if not criminal) conspiracy to protect a monster. He’s all lawyered-up now, bracing for the legal tidal wave roaring his way.
Some places doubled as palaces among the toxic realities of life, places like Duke basketball, the Brooklyn Dodgers, Notre Dame and Penn State football, cradles of character where, for a few hours, we could live vicariously through something or someone better than we are. Can we ever return to those fantasies?
This is the most daunting and haunting story I’ve ever seen, heard or covered in the context of sports. With wars we take sides based on cause, casualties, and home turf. Our foes are normally well defined.
In the case of Penn State vs. Humanity, however, there are none of the bona fides of battle. Yet a silent war was waged against our senses. Sandusky is a child rapist who ran free under the guise of goodness and the pristine proposition that mothers and fathers ship their sons to a foreign but friendly place where older men will care for them as though they were still under mom’s roof.
For many of us, this story clouds our sense of direction, even as adults. My compass has been shattered this week because all my associations with football are pure. Football is at once America’s game and shame. At least it was for a week.
Many of us don’t have that switch. It’s impossible to just forget the horror a few miles west and wax poetic and preview Jets-Patriots. It’s about those kids, how they were assaulted and who assaulted them. This doesn’t end with Paterno, a mummy already staggering out the door, getting whacked just a few games before his contract expires. That was perfunctory, a band-aid on a tumor, as the cliché goes. Death threats against Mike McQueary don’t help us. We don’t even know why he’s still there after admitting he witnessed the worst thing he (or any of us) will ever see, and, imbued with the power to stop it and report it to the police, did neither.
How do we go from the dark dungeon of Penn State to the bright lights of gameday? Are we wrong for trying? Maybe this weekend will take our minds back to basics, to the joy of football. Maybe. But maybe our thoughts wander westward; again, to the little lost souls buried in a campus that represented a haven for the very people it destroyed.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com