David Hoppe

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:: The Penn State scandal

Rocking the Church of Football

By David Hoppe


On the off chance you were herding yaks in Uzbekistan last week and missed the news: Joe Paterno is no longer the head football coach at Penn State.

Joepa, as he is affectionately known, had been the Penn State coach since 1966. During that span, his teams won 409 games. But that couldn't save the 84 year-old icon from being fired for not doing enough to report allegations that his longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was a pedophile.

Sandusky has been indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys. He's been charged with seven counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse - with, that is to say, having raped boys.

It appears at least 20 of the crimes Sandusky is charged with took place while he was working for Joepa at Penn State. Sandusky retired from coaching in 1999. In 2001, he published an autobiography rather creepily titled, Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story .

The abrupt ending to Paterno's storied career appears to be a form of collateral damage inflicted by the Sandusky affair. It wasn't anything Paterno did that got him in trouble, but that he didn't do enough. When told in 2002 that Sandusky had been seen raping a boy in the Penn State locker room, Paterno duly reported the incident to the university administration and went back to the business of being a legendary football coach.

News of this scandal broke across the bow of the national media like a tidal wave. This wasn't just a sports story, but a national morality play involving heinous sex crimes, betrayals of trust and a beloved father figure -- all played out against the backdrop of football, our nation's most hyped-up pastime.

Without the football connection, it's doubtful this story would have received wall-to-wall coverage. Last Friday, for example, an eerily similar case involving allegations that a culture of pedophilia permeates high school swimming on both state and national levels was relegated to the Star's Metro and State section, along with stories about the Bands of America Grand National Championship and bus fees in Franklin Township.

But football has become tantamount to a kind of church in this country. The stories of players and coaches are packaged as parables about enduring pain and making sacrifices, the power of individual will and the importance of teamwork. Games and plays are endlessly analyzed in exercises melding brute force with an almost hyper-rational attention to the details of technique. Coaches, teams and players are judged according to their abilities to do what we mere mortals rarely, if ever, accomplish: control their destinies.

No wonder, then, that the Penn State scandal has been compared to the sexual abuse scandals that continue to rock the Catholic Church. In both instances the behavior of coaches/clergy is seen as taking place in a privileged zone somehow beyond the laws that govern the rest of us. As another legendary coach, the all-but-sainted Vince Lombardi famously said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

I grew up in a Great Lakes state. Football here can seem as natural a part of the Autumn landscape as the falling leaves or the vivid blue that heightens the sky at this time of year. As kids we played tackle and touch football wherever we could find a grassy space big enough to give us room. I loved playing those games and, like a lot of other people, I got hooked on watching the NFL.

That was back when the (Baltimore) Colts' biggest player - and one of the biggest players in the pro game - was Ed "Big Daddy" Lipscomb. Lipscomb was considered a mountain of a man at 284 pounds. Players were built more like the rest of us in those days.

The championship game wasn't "super" yet. Players earned extra money by selling insurance or opening restaurants or car dealerships. They were well compensated, but teams weren't made up of millionaires. We fans had yet to anoint the NFL and, by extension, the college game that feeds it, as our national metaphor, the crystallization of our obsessions with size, violence and spectacle.

Our fixation with the game has turned it into a corporate powerhouse. Cities with NFL franchises wear a kind of corporate imprimatur that signals a place where business can be done with the willing cooperation of state and local governments. Communities lobby the NFL to host the annual Super Bowl through a process by which it is the league that judges whether or not a city is worthy for its championship game. And when that game takes place, the stands are full to the rafters with members of the so-called "1 percent," the country's executive class, who see on the field a self-congratulatory dramatization of capitalism on steroids.

The game was never meant to carry this weight. It is, after all, a game. But our insistence on seeing it as something more has led to such excesses as cathedral-like stadia and, at a university like Penn State, athletic departments that actually overshadow the schools they are associated with. Students there rioted when they heard of Joepa's firing. Their team was 8-1 at the time and undefeated in the Big Ten conference standings. What could be more important than that?