The big lie of big football is that it builds character. This it is said to do by some scientific/magical recombination of teamwork and sweat and violence and decision-making. Truth is, the coaches make the decisions (i.e., "kick away from Devin Hester") while the players merely act upon them (i.e., "oops").
With the exception of the quarterback calling an audible at the line, football disdains improvisation or expressions of self. The simplest "adjustments" now require a sideline teleconference. Even an audible is just a reselection of programming from within a rigid menu -- however thick the playbook, however complex the offensive "system." Nobody in the 21st century huddle is drawing up plays in the dirt with his fingertip.
By its nature, football values toughness and conformity and technique and a willingness to sacrifice individual needs and goals in service of the group outcome. Thus was it taught at Linebacker U. But our cult of the coach bends the game sharply toward fascism; authoritarianism. Which is why I've never quite understood how it became our late-model national sport. American mythology pivots on the ideal of rugged individualism, after all. Big football produces a choreography of bovine compliance.
Decisions get made, of course, but those decisions are only tactical, only empirical. And they're made much higher up the chain of command than the player. For every condition or situation, there's a formation, a play, a permutation, a cover scheme, an answer. Chess? Checkers? Chutes and Ladders? Sure. However you picture it.
But these in-game decisions just graph risk against return (Go for it on fourth-and-1 against the Saints in overtime?). The decisions themselves are merely mathematical (binary: first down Falcons, or ball reverts on downs). The decisions are never moral or immoral. Never ethical or unethical. These decisions never wrestle a philosophical "right" or an ideological "wrong." They are an expression only of utility and expediency.
This creates big football's attractive illusion of order. Which is one of the things I believe we find so appealing about the game: Within a fixed set of boundaries and rules and metaphors, within clear limits of allowable behavior, it appears as a world of cause and effect. It is a little theater of the known in a universe ruined by human weakness and the chaos of our constant appetites.
Thus, from Pop Warner to the pros and from your local paper to ESPN, we've built a huge national apparatus of football decision-making and analysis in service of nothing. In service of entertainment, distraction and false reassurance.
And of course, money. Never forget the money. But football -- big football -- isn't sold to us as mere spectacle or profit center. That wouldn't work. We know ourselves too well. It's sold back to us as a builder of men. This is, of course, ridiculous. Football is no better at building character than the Future Farmers of America or the Girl Scouts or a job behind the fragrance counter at Bloomingdales. With its boorish alpha-male exclusions for jock exceptionalism, it's likely much worse.
As 2011 staggers and falls -- with big football scandals from Oregon to Florida, from The U to The Ohio State -- that should at last be clear.
By error or event, every so often the curtain of our little theater of human delusion is pulled aside, and we're made to look at the machinery backstage. What distinguishes this week's bone-chilling Penn State story is that no one at any point in it has made a good decision. Not the coaches, not the prosecutors, not the cops, not the board of trustees. Not the students, nor the citizens of Central Pennsylvania. Certainly not the press. A chain of perfect failure, the story illuminates in terrifying detail the limits of our "decision making."
I include myself in this. Nothing I write can undo what's done. I can't comfort you in any real way, nor can I confront you for your complicity. This applies across every sports media platform in America. We're lost when we start talking about reality.
As was the case last weekend, when we mostly asked the wrong questions of the wrong people in service of the wrong priorities.
Was there genuine contrition in State College on Saturday? Some. But there was football, too, without a missed beat, without much pause for thought or reflection. Healing? To what end? We don't even know the nature or the extent of the injury. Even the Nebraska coach wasn't sure they should be playing.
The game day mood was subdued not only because some community-wide consensus exists on the moral horror of a child allegedly being raped in the Penn State showers, but also because the program itself and the people who identify with it had been dragged into bad repute; because people had been made to think of college football as something other than the motivational inscription on a pen and pencil set; that a ritualized one-dimensional entertainment had somehow become a real and terrible thing in a world of compromised adults and actions and consequences.
So the cynic in me would argue that the prayer circle at the 50-yard line was not our first step in forgiving, but a lunge toward forgetting. The two are not equivalent, no matter how desperately we pretend them to be. Only the players and the coaches will ever know what went through their minds as they knelt for that moment of silence.
My worry is that false piety is what got us here.
There's a remedy for that, but the capital-T truth is strong and bitter medicine. It burns. Maybe we should have invited the same 100,000-plus to Beaver Stadium for a few hours of honest talk and a few hours of truth-telling. For a few hours of shared suffering. For a few hours of anything but football.
Somehow we've arrived at a moment in history when we value our institutions too highly and our individuals too lightly. Sunk in our entertainments, blind in our fears and our vanity, we're going to have to decide what kind of world we'll choose to make for ourselves.
Football? A builder of men?
So was Dr. Frankenstein.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.