A few years ago, USC was hit with major penalties for improper benefits. Within, the last 12 months, Ohio State, North Carolina, LSU, Texas, Boise St., Auburn, Miami and Oregon have all come under that watchful eye of the NCAA. It has been a lousy year for college football.
And now there is this Penn St. thing. I use the term”thing” because thing is used to describe something that is not easily identified. “There is this thing growing on the side of my tree. This thing in my engine is making a racket when I accelerate. There is something out in the barn.”
How do you accurately put into words a pedophile being allowed unfettered access to troubled boys? How do you describe, in detail, what he is accused of doing? How do you talk about certain rumors popping up involving these boys and other members of the university? A missing district attorney? Men walking away while boys are being raped in the shower?
This is so much more repulsive than players getting paid money or cheating on term papers or recruits being shown a good time by willing females. This is about the darkest nature of man. It is about serious and heinous crimes being committed against children. It is something that repulses anyone regardless of age, sex or status. It is a gross, disgusting story.
As I have sat for the last two days digesting all of this, my team (Ohio State) has been declared guilty by the NCAA of having failed to monitor, which is the second worst violation possible. Soon OSU will be hit by sanctions, including loss of scholarships and perhaps even a bowl ban. Next to what is happening at Penn St. it is a joke, a sign of my troubled mind that the two are even compared.
I am not seeking to compare the paltry effect of sanctions against a football powerhouse to that of the destruction of several childhoods. I am trying to compare the reaction of the fan bases.
Whenever another team gets caught with their hand in the cookie jar, you smile and think “I knew it! I knew they were cheating!” You write on message boards proclaiming how they are dirty while your team is made of nothing but angels. And then your team gets caught. Your Christian coach who has done so much for the young men on his team, for the college and for the community has been caught cheating and lying.
It stuns you. You rooted for a cheater. You beat teams with ineligible players. You are suddenly them. And you deny and you defend until the realization of it all comes crashing down upon your head. Your coach and your team are human after all, and you are no better.
Penn St. students rallied and rioted around their disgraced ex-coach. After all, Paterno had been there since the Middle Ages and hardly a Nittany Lion fan can recall a day when JoePa wasn’t walking the sidelines. He was Penn St. football! And all that you trusted and all that you loved is covered in muck, and you feel slimmed.
Many who write upon this subject will come to the conclusion that it is our willingness to accept reality within certain confines that causes us grief when those realities are challenged or even shattered. Certainly I view Jim Tressel in a new light now that his failures have been exposed, and certainly there is a great deal of truth in saying that tumbled heroes make us question deeply held beliefs. After all, things that we cling to do not go gentle into that good night.
But I think that there is a much simpler answer. I think that when we find out our teams have cheated or have covered up crimes, it makes us sad because it has trampled upon our youth.
We recall a day when back-yard football was the best thing in the world and there was no cheating involved. No recruiting violations, no 100 dollar hand shakes. We remember running down a deep fly ball while trying to not smash into a tree. We remember basketball games played with friends using a hoop attached to a garage. We remember racing to find out who was the fastest.
It was a childhood and it was a game and the two were forever meshed into one. When we read about point shaving and cheating and crimes being allowed so as to not rock the boat, we shudder because such things were never part of the games we played as kids. It cheapens what we grew to love. It makes a young boy cry out to Shoeless Joe Jackson “say it ain’t so, Joe!” Say it isn’t true that my hero playing the game I love isn’t a cheat and a scoundrel. Say that what I have made my own isn’t tarnished.
Say it isn’t so, Jim. Or Joe. Or Cam. Or Pete. Tell me it isn’t true so that the one pure thing I had as a child can survive the brutal reality of growing up. Tell me that somewhere there is someone who still plays for the love of the game. Tell me it isn’t all about the money. Tell me integrity is more important than the final score. Tell me quick before the last playground of my youth is torn down to make way for a parking lot. Tell me before I can no longer recall the smell of a new glove or the feel of a football as it hits my fingers and I haul it in for a catch.
Tell me before the sunlight fades and all I have left is the darkness of adult cynicism.