The Bear, JoePa, Leaders & Moral Quandaries

By D.J. Byrnes on February 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm
Trophies', like money's, shine can hue a human's moral compass. 

If there's one thing I think I understand about the universe, it's this: sports can mean a lot to certain people. Sports, like alcohol, cause people to do things they wouldn't do otherwise. Some of this means lighthearted, albeit bizarre, fun. Sports can make "Ned from Accounting" dress up like a clown and momentarily lose his mind for two and a half hours on the weekend. Other times, it has a deeper, more sinister effect. If you're having trouble crystallizing examples of this, I offer the picture of the two gentlemen to the right. They are, from the picture's left to right, Bear Bryant, former Alabama football coach, and Joe Paterno, former Penn State football coach. They offer examples of what nefarious effects sports can do to the neurons firing in people's brains.

Besides both being largely successful at what they did (8 national titles between them), they were both moral cowards who failed the biggest (and probably easiest) moral tests of their time... and that stigma should rightfully be attached to their "legacies". It is simply the tale of the tape, and to act or say otherwise, is to engage in historical whitewashing. 

Some people enjoy a good historical whitewashing. Look at all the "AND HERE THE PILGRIMS GENEROUSLY INVITED THE SAVAGE INDIANS, WHO BY THE WAY, HAD NEVER SEEN A FEAST OF THIS MAGNITUDE, INTO THEIR COLONIES AND EXCHANGED WINE AND GOOD STORIES WITH THEM" Thanksgiving plays which occur at institutions of learning across this country every fall. I guess as long as it's not the beginning of your people's genocide getting euthanized from the history books, then it's all good fun. Granted, this story doesn't end with Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno handing out blankets laced with small pox, but it doesn't mean people aren't already trying to do to Joe Paterno's "legacy" what others have done to the "legacy" of Bear Bryant and the Pilgrims. 

Maybe it's because I've accepted the ultimate insignificance of my own life, but I cringe every time I hear the word "legacy" in regards to a guy who turned tricks with a leather ball or won a lot of organized children's games. Gandhi is somebody who has a legacy. This Super Bowl, for example, means nothing to Tom Brady's "legacy", because Tom Brady will never have a "legacy". (At least in Jesse Owens' day, he was shattering Hitler's ideologies in Hitler's own nest while the entire world watched.) In 500 years, people will care about somebody like Ghandi. In 500 years, people will never care about somebody like Tom Brady. 

And yet, people continue to put hay into their spinning-wheel and try to pass it off as gold as long as sports are involved. Not that I can blame people who back Paterno, they're only doing what Bear Bryant's zealots did after the Bear went tits up. Hell, what Bear eulogists would have you only believe about the Bear is a hay-to-gold spindling that would make Rumpelstiltskin blush.

I'm sure everybody here has heard of Ol' Bear Bryant, winner of 26 national titles (numbers produced by Alabamananananan's doing math, remember) and resurrector of Alabama football. What you rarely hear when the Media fawns over the days-be-gone coach, other than the fact he was the first white male to be a big enough asshole to wear a fedora and try to pass it of as fashionable, is the fact that Bear Bryant was a moral coward. He was faced with a rudimentary moral equation, and, for lack of a more awesome phrase, the Bear shit the woods. 

It's something which is usually left out of ballads of the Bear, although they're usually accompanied by the melodic sounds of an Angel's harp. It's rarely asked, just how did Bear Bryant, who coached Alabama from 1958 to 1982, get away with not integrating his team until 1971, which, by my (poor) math skillz, is 17 YEARS AFTER BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION

Black players weren't good enough, until they were.

"Oh, Bear was still ahead of his time," people will honestly tell you. "He wanted to integrate, you see, but the 'social climate' at the time just wouldn't let him." They'll point to his efforts to integrate at Kentucky and Texas A&M, and then, while you're wondering if this is an IRL-Troll, they'll say, 'He even scheduled integrated USC in 1970 to prove the neeed to integrate to Alabama fans.'"

The best part, to me anyways, is people say this without the slightest awareness they're convicting their beloved Bear of moral cowardice right there on the spot. So, Bear Bryant realized segregation was absurd when he was at Kentucky and he let it continue because "the time wasn't right"? Where have I heard this kind of hazy logic in defense of something which is CLEARLY WRONG? (Maybe it will come to me.)

Here's a fun thought experiment, what if Alabama would have crushed Sam Cunningham and USC at the beginning of the 1970 season? (TIDBIT: SEC teams were still scared to leave their backyard in the 70's too.) What if Alabama could have competed without minorities on their football team? When would the timing been "right" for the Bear?

Instead, Bryant, a leading figure in a leading state in one of the most turbulent times in American history, had nary a peep to say about one of the biggest (and morally clear) issues of his time other than basically saying the blacks were eventually coming to southern athletics, whether people liked it or not:

"We're not recruiting Negro athletes: that's a policy decision for others to make. But Negro players in Southeastern Conference games are coming."

Where Bryant was silent, others outright vile actions were willing to shape pulbic opinion on the matter. You want to know who filled the vacuum created by the Bear's silence? The pride of Alabama and its 45th governor, George Wallace. I'll let Wallace's "legacy" speak for itself, but just know Bear Bryant cow-towed to this man's desires until he couldn't compete otherwise. It's a losing proposition for Bryant's disciples. Either Bear Bryant knew George Wallace's policies were wrong and did nothing (moral cowardice) or he agreed with them, in which no football victories could redeem his fitness to be a human being. 

Not that any of this matters to Alabama fans; after all, it wasn't the plight of people who look like them anyway. And with 'Bama fans, I guess I get it. Bear Bryant resurrected Alabama football, the one thing in that state competing on a national level. (Although today their national relevancy is earned through some slight-of-hand tactics in regards to recruiting rules, but that's a debate for another day.) Hell, a lot of people who voted Governor Wallace to power are still alive today (as are their kids), so I guess this isn't surprising. What I don't understand, though, is why national figures engage in the whitewashing. 

It's especially frustrating, because all these years later, here we are again, with another iconic figure who won a bunch of football games. This time, I'm not even sure the corpse was cold before the eulogy organs began churning out their music. Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski scribed an obituary which was promptly demolished by Deadspin's Tom Scocca. (This after Drew Magary, also of Deadspin, put more holes in Joe Paterno's final, pathetic defense than one could buy in an 18th century Chinese whorehouse.) Then to put the cherry on the coffin, there was Phil Knight, a child labor profiteer, lauding Joe Paterno, which reached to irony levels so high it was even blindly ridiculed by people who have bought the child labor profiteer's products. 

Joe Paterno (and his son) would have us believe he's not only never heard "of, of rape and a man" but more damningly, that he went to the grave with a "clear conscience". If Joe Paterno went to the grave with a clear conscience, then he is an even worse human being than even I would probably have you believe. 

"It's a tough life when people do certain thing to you." - Joe Pa

The elephant through this entire scandal has been the fact Paterno is heavily in debt to the once-lengendary Jerry Sandusky. Would Nittany Lions fans have been as patient with the ongoing charade his twilight years devolved into if it weren't for his two national titles, both of whose dominating defenses were engineered by Jerry Sandusky? People in the 22nd century might not know that, because those two national titles aren't listed on Jerry Sandusky's Wikipedia page.

But hey, I'm sure Sandusky's early retirement after the 1999 season (and his subsequent non-hiring) had nothing to do with the botched 1998 investigation into the Penn State coordinator. What's tough to get out of my mind, however, almost as much as the phrase "rhythmic slapping", is the fact that Joe Paterno -- who HAD TO HAVE SUSPICIONS BY THIS TIME -- took the reported rape of a child, IN HIS TEAM'S FACILITIES, to his just his boss... and that sat by and did nothing else while the report disappeared. Oh by the way, this was also a guy who Joe Paterno knew was around at-risk boys as a side-hustle. Paterno even allowed Sandusky to bring victims to practice. And even after all that, there's the troubling leaked investigation in 2008, yet Sandusky was still allowed to use Penn State facilities, sometimes with victims, until the week he was arrested?

And Joe Paterno went to the grave with peace about all of this? What? "He's just an old timer who is getting hated on by the masses", as people tell it? And EVEN IF HE WAS at peace with how everything transpired, shouldn't he be haunted by the fact his death means his testimony can no longer play a role in the Sandusky trial? "The media killed him," Penn State fans whaled, as if Paterno couldn't live without coaching. (I guess putting a serial child rapist who used your own coattails to cover his pedophilia behind bars wasn't ample enough reason to stay alive.)

Wait a second, how did the Bear rationalize his inaction again? 

"We're not recruiting Negro athletes: that's a policy decision for others to make. But Negro players in Southeastern Conference games are coming."

TRANSLATED: "AW SHUCKS, Y'ALL, I'M JUST A SIMPLE FOOTBALL COACH YOU SEE." Tell me, do you think either two of these men accepted their underlings to pass the buck like this? Is that what Bear Bryant or Joe Paterno screamed at one of their players when they missed a tackle? "NO WORRIES BRO, THE SLOT GUY WAS THE SAFETY'S GUY, HE SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN OPEN ANYWAY." Then why would passing the buck be acceptable in a discussion of something that actually matters?

I guess it comes down what you're willing to exchange for football victories. Take Ohio State's Jim Tressel, as the trolls will most certainly do due to the banner this article is flying under. I do not respect the NCAA or its laws. It's not a moral code. I have no problem with Tressel turning a strategic blind eye (which it most certainly was) in regards to his star quarterback getting benefits. Is it how I'd run my team? No, but I don't really have a moral issue with it. Jim Tressel broke the rules, he was punished, and the joke that is the NCAA goes on. I guess one could argue "staying silent on wrongdoing is staying silent on wrongdoing is staying silent on wrongdoing", but that's literally comparing tattoos to child rape and inaction on segregation. I'm not sure staying silent on those things is the same thing. 

My brother was an adept troll at an early age. For example, he once poured an entire box of Kroger's knock-off Lucky Charms onto our kitchen table, took out all the marshmellows, ate a bowl entirely of said marshmellows, and then put the rest of the cereal back into the box for me to find. He also became a Penn State because Zack Mills was his favorite college quarterback. I wish I was making this up. Anyway, he routinely called Ohio State "cheaters" and ridiculed Ohio State for the whole free-tattoos thing. After the Jerry Sandusky thing? He threw 14 years of Penn State fanship into the trashcan. Why? "I can't be affiliated with that kind of stuff," he said. 

Now, my brother basically lives in a crackhouse in Dayton, but such are the lines of clear moral clarity which I feel we're all walking when issues like "child rape" and "segregation" clash into something like "sports". Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno weren't the first people to let sports cloud their moral judgment, but they at least should serve as an important lesson on what can happen when people place sports above things that actually matter. Wouldn't this be a way to ensure nothing like this happens again?

Does this mean Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno were inherently evil people? I don't believe that, which is why I'm not typing it. And yes, I know, "these guys did more than just win footballs for their community," but I guess I'm as inherently unimpressed by rich people writing checks as I am people who win football games. I think most people would be more generous if they had secured their wealth in life, especially if that money was won by winning a bunch of football games in the first place. 

People are free to come up with their own algorithms and conversion charts regarding their own exchange of their principles for football victories. This is a free country, after all. Just don't do so while dancing around the inconvenient facts of the case.  

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