Lydell Ross really got me thinking this week.
Actually, that's not entirely true... Lance Armstrong got me thinking this week, and then Lydell Ross really got me thinking.
It all started as I was pondering the "legacy" of the now forever tainted cycling superstar. When the latest round of accusations, allegations and admissions in the Armstrong doping scandal crept up a couple of weeks ago, and it became apparent that this time the dirt would actually stick, I started thinking about how the situation would affect his charitable work through the Lance Armstrong Foundation - or what many think of simply as the LIVESTRONG Foundation.
Admittedly, I have a LIVESTRONG cover on my iPhone and have been known to wear the ubiquitous yellow wristband. My warm and fuzzy feelings about the foundation did not start with cancer, as has been the case with many of the Foundation's fans, but with weight loss. A few years ago I started on a quest to improve my health and body composition, and the resources at LiveStrong.com were a big part of my success. While those resources are now only an "official partner" of the foundation, the connection between the principles of the LiveStrong movement are more than brand-deep.
"In 1996, as my cancer treatment was drawing to an end, I created a foundation to serve people affected by cancer," Armstrong wrote in announcing his resignation last week as chair of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. "It has been a great privilege to help grow it from a dream into an organization that today has served 2.5 million people and helped spur a cultural shift in how the world views cancer survivors. This organization, its mission and its supporters are incredibly dear to my heart...Therefore, to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship."
What in the name of St. Paul Brown does a cyclist hopped up on goofballs have to do with Lydell Ross and Ohio State football? you're likely pondering... Earlier this week when reading what Ross has been up to in the years since his standout years with the Buckeyes, I was struck by Ross' comments about Coach Tressel - it was clear in the piece that he holds Coach in the highest regard despite the tumultuous circumstances surrounding his departure as the team's commander-in-chief.
"In Tressel we trust" was something many of us believed devoutly for a decade of our lives... for many of us, the words are more than a slogan. Setting aside the Xs and Os, James Patrick Tressel brought something highly intangible to The Ohio State University. Call it respect, call it integrity - please, spare for a moment the screams of "hypocrite" - call it what you will, but from the time he arrived on campus there was a clear sense of what Ohio State football was all about, and that there was more to the program than simply winning rings.
In a sense, what befell Coach Tressel makes sense... Right or (clearly) wrong, his internal compass said trying to keep those young men out of some potentially very deep trouble was bigger than any potential harm that might land on his own shoulders.
I'll not write more about the Tressel situation, because others have done a better job of pulling it apart piece by bitter piece than will I - my point is simply that, as with Lance Armstrong, the man and the good he accomplished exists in a seemingly separate dimension from the deeds that ultimately become his undoing.
Tomorrow's romp in Happy Valley made the obvious connection to my otherwise disparate thoughts on these men and their "legacies." Joe Paterno was, depending on who you ask, either a Saint or the Devil himself. Last week I read one of the most interesting and insightful pieces on the Paterno legacy likely to be written, and it completely changed the way I look at what has happened at Penn State in the wake of the reprehensible actions of Jerry Sandusky.
Michael Bérubé has just become the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, where he is also director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. He is president of the Modern Language Association. Up until a short time ago, he was the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Penn State, an endowed Chair he resigned Aug. 20, a decision with which he struggled for some six weeks.
In a perfect world, there would be no child rapists; in a world slightly better than the one I inhabit, legal authorities would snap into action when a licensed psychologist identifies someone as a child rapist; and in the world I wish I inhabited, everyone with any knowledge of the 2001 incident would have made sure that Jerry Sandusky never touched another boy, and Joe Paterno himself would have taken the lead. It is inconceivable to me that the man who loved the Aeneid because he considered it the great epic of honor and duty would not have done more when apprised of Sandusky's behavior than report it up the chain of command.
And now what remains? Paterno's famous statue has been removed from outside the stadium, and the student encampment, Paternoville, has been renamed Nittanyville. Brown University has taken his name off an athletics award (an alumnus, he remains in Brown's Hall of Fame), and Nike has taken his name off its child-care center. On Penn State's campus, although his name remains on the library he loved and supported so generously (as well it should), these days you can't even buy a sandwich at the campus sub shop that once called itself Joegie's. Joe's likeness has been scraped from the front window, and the shop has been blandly rechristened Hub Subs. We are still stumbling, still trying to figure out how to proceed: Erasing the name seems too easy a fix, a simple scrubbing and denial, and yet keeping it seems to say that everything is just fine and nothing has changed in Happy Valley. I have made my decision, but the question of how to remember Joe Paterno is far from settled.
But if I am not happy about resigning the Paterno chair, it is because I am not happy about what has happened here in the valley. I am not happy that we were the site of a horrible child-rape scandal extending over many years, perpetrated by a former defensive coordinator for the football team, and enabled by a bungled police investigation and university leaders who were either grossly negligent, actively conspiring in crime, or (the most benevolent possible reading) both clueless and incurious about who and what they were dealing with.
As the world (even unto Antarctica) now knows, one of Gary Schultz's 1998 notes reads: "Is this the opening of Pandora's box?" and "Other children?" Yes, Mr. Schultz, there were other children. Yes, it was Pandora's box. We all wish you had followed up on those questions, and that taking such a step somehow would have prevented Sandusky from gaining access to any more young boys. It's their lives that should have been everyone's first concern. Surely, in that light, the fate of the Paterno chair recedes into unimportance.
Indeed - and the same can be said for the fate of the Penn State football program, I am sure. And yet tomorrow when our Eleven Warriors brave and strong meet on the field of athletic battle 11 young men wearing the blue and white of the Nittany Lions, both teams will be playing under the shadows of their fallen-hero former coaches.
For Penn State the situation is almost mind-numbingly different from that of Ohio State, and yet the question remains: how do we remember these once - and perhaps still - great men? Should we not separate the man from the myth, the legend and the sordid?
Jim Tressel was run out of town on a rail for doing something that, in some ways, didn't "feel" wrong. Joe Paterno's statue, having stood watch on his school's campus for more than two decades, was ripped down as though he were the butcher of Baghdad. As though it were not enough that he quite literally died when he was forced out of an institution that was in many respects of his own creation, and that certainly created the legend that was him... and the question of what legacy he left behind may not be settled for decades, if at all.
What happened to Sandusky's victims is unconscionable, and were he gone from this veil of tears instead of Paterno, likely few would mourn his passing. In reading Bérubé's account of Paterno's off the field legacy, I find it difficult to complete erase those decades despite a disappointment that he apparently did little to end Sandusky's abuses.
When the players take the field tomorrow, all we'll be screaming about are good plays and bad, cheering our team to victory or wallowing in their defeat.
For tonight, however, I'm stuck pondering the much bigger picture, of how to feel about the late, great, Joe Paterno. Some things are bigger than football.