Commentary

PSU can focus on victims

Victims, institutional change should begin all of our conversations

Updated: July 25, 2012, 12:06 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

In the days since the Freeh report was released, and Penn State University and its disgraced football program drew closer to its denouement, divides formed around the appropriate response to the greatest scandal in the history of American sport.

Ostensibly, the debate had been one of policy, marked by unfortunate and overheated sentencing rhetoric: the death penalty versus rehabilitation for Penn State football. In fact, most people were arguing about nothing more than the future of a game. Death penalty seekers believed Penn State deserved to lose its team because the runaway power of big-time football blinded an entire community's leaders from seeing clearly, enabling a child predator to sexually abuse young boys on campus for at least a decade and a half. The rehabilitators saw no value in stripping good, well-meaning people of their iconic team, the weekend soul of a campus, by punishing innocents: the stadium vendors, the student-athletes, the fans equally sickened by Jerry Sandusky and the whole affair. There was, to them, no reason to further devastate a devastated community.

With the penalties now levied, and Penn State now reduced on the field for the next several years and in the public imagination permanently, it's long past time to step beyond sports, to clear the lens. The true divide was never between death penalty hawks and doves, but rather the tension between the individual and the institution, and the responsibility and culpability of each.

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Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesStudents at Penn State listened to the NCAA announcement Monday.

Penn State lost its fun and games, its diversion. It lost a fictionalized version of itself and its fallen, iconic coach. It lost numbers in a record book and money from its wallet. The sanctions against the football program were, in effect, significant only through one insular, unimportant lens: the overemphasis on football and big-time sports in general that created an environment for such a colossal mess to occur in the first place.

If anything of worth is to emerge, the Saturday afternoon tailgate, the bragging rights and the beer will be replaced by something far more valuable: responsibility. It is time for Penn State to grow up. It is also time for the rest of the country, those blinded by sports and money and power who think they can be smug because they didn't attend or care about Penn State, to grow up as well. College is about building a foundation for seeing the world in its curious complex dimensions, and now the university community through the worst kind of scandal just received a heavy dose of reality. No one with a soul wanted it to be this way, but the students and the campus now have some necessary grit to accompany their stardust.

Life is hard, and it is unfair and it is heinous, and people do awful things that do not and will not ever make sense, and it is here while phrases like "innocent" and "devastating" and "death penalty" get tossed around like confetti, it should never be forgotten just exactly who the victims are, who they always will be, and just what happened to them on the Penn State campus.

The culture of reverence surrounding football has been sobered and this is a good thing, maybe the best of things, enhanced only if the people who are not connected with Penn State -- the big-time programs around the country with the big-time coaches who are revered as saints, like Paterno was, as well as the influential non-sports institutions that wield enormous power -- accept the same message.

Perhaps a decade or so from now, when the freshmen and seniors turn into husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, when they send their children to school and look the bus driver in the eye expecting his full attention -- when it becomes personal for them -- they will think back about Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley and all they did not do, about the criminal these men protected. They will understand that it was a young boy in a shower with a grown man -- and not the football program -- who received a life sentence. With their own children, they will demand the kind of accountability Victim 4 and Victim 6 and the rest never received.

When they drop their kids off at soccer or football practice they will think not about whether Joe Paterno has 298 wins or 409, but hopefully with more skepticism about the dangerous mythology of the unassailable, untouchable culture of the coach. Then, they will think again about Paterno, about the great man they believed he was and -- in handling the most important choice of his life -- the unimpressive man he turned out to be. Maybe these same sophomores sitting in the Penn State's HUB-Robeson Center with their hands over their mouths in horror some years later will look differently at every coach, every president and every person in a leadership position and expect their very best, expecting more so they don't receive less. Maybe they'll have less fun at the game today but be ahead of the rest of us when they become parents tomorrow.

In the meantime, the team may not be very good, but it really doesn't matter. The culture of sports has perfected the illusion of making these sporting dramas seem important, when they are not. This isn't about tailgating or the Rose Bowl. The university can forge an identity independent of football. Life will go on. The institution, if it has any inherent value at all, will survive, and it will become stronger. Football players can transfer to other schools and continue playing or they can stay, and the ones who do should grow stronger in the eyes of their Penn State peers because they put their hands into the soil of the community to rebuild it without the simple fleeting rewards of playing a bowl game.

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Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesThe landscape at Penn State has changed. We should all be paying attention.

Monday's action, despite the NCAA's myriad hypocrisies, was not about punishing "innocents," but about correcting the importance of football itself -- its place, its outsized, intimidating power, the responsibility of that power -- and the need to provide appropriate distance from the old history to create a new one.

The message, emphasized by the sanctions, is that in a collective everyone may not be guilty, but no one is innocent. Everyone wears the colors. Everyone cheers the same team. Everyone benefits from the good times. That is why it is called an institution. The players followed and trusted their leaders, and now everyone who chooses to be associated with the institution of Penn State will pay the price.

A great American failing in responding to scandal has been to punish the individuals while leaving a corrupt culture intact. Paterno, Sandusky, Spanier, Schultz and Curley are gone, and while it may appear to be social penance, that Penn State is buying its way out of its scandal with its $60 million fine and financial commitments to victims, that is part of the price of failure. Other appropriate and non-forced responses are easy to imagine. Already, numerous Penn State alumni organizations have raised money for victims. The individuals have rejected the collective and taken their own action. Maybe the darkness of sanction will be followed by a return to the light. Maybe Penn State can create something concrete and lasting in the place of the darkness, the individuals leading the institution instead of the other way around.

Without change of mindset, a view through the proper lens, something about the game and the aftermath will seem perverse, will feel like noise, as if we've learned nothing. If the public debate remains about wins, losses and legacies, about the power instead of the powerless, the victims will return to what they've always been: pawns in the power game -- and that will be our greatest indictment.

No matter how football looks at Penn State in the future, the dialogue between individual and institution should begin and end with what really happened to these young people and how the university learned and changed. When the university was in danger of losing its program entirely, Jerry Payne, Penn State class of 1982, wrote to me, "I think you'll find the people of Penn State University are more than willing to work for some kind of healing and I think that can be best be done by keeping them aware and involved, not alienated and isolated.

"We're humiliated as it is. People around the country don't know what it's really like here, what we're feeling, how devastated we are. Give us a chance to make ourselves proud again (which might take generations), at least relevant. We can make a difference. Give us a chance, and you'll see."

Redemption exists for all of us every day. Many people on Penn State's campus are already taking advantage to be what we all need to be, and that is better. Beginning and ending by thinking about what really happened to these young people and why -- because one day they will be your children, your nieces, nephews and your neighbors -- is the appropriate response. The game of football will be fine. It was never what needed anyone's protection or anyone's tears.