Commentary

Penn State scandal and a tipping point

It isn't the first, but it's probably the worst. How much more can we take?

Originally Published: November 12, 2011
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

So is this it? Is this how and when it ends?

Is this the tipping point? The point where everything finally changes?

And if it isn't, what is?

Is it possible for just a minute to step back and look at this (and we all know what "this" is after the week's worth of news out of State College, Pa.) from another perspective? At the impact it can have on us? On our faith in people? Systems? Programs? Institutions?

Because this is what has been brought down in the last seven days:

• A former widely respected assistant coach who led a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping at-risk youths.

• An athletic director with an impeccable track record.

• A university president.

• A football culture that almost every other program in the country aspired to replicate.

• Joe Paterno.

• Penn State University.

All, as of this week, not who and what we thought they were. All not who and what we were told they were.

Where, now, do we go from here?

Here? I'm done with this! I'll never trust another college coach or program ever again! No. Probably not to that overly dramatic, scorched-earth place. That kind of reaction to Penn State's alleged child sexual abuse scandal would be wrong. To go that far -- to say that our faith in college athletics will never be the same -- is extreme.

[+] EnlargePenn State
AP Photo/Matt RourkeOn some level, we are so enamored of college sports that it seems nothing will derail our devotion. So far.

Exaggeratory, cubed. To the third power.

This is the greatest fall from grace we've ever seen in college sports, considering the prestige of Penn State's football program and the nature of the alleged crimes committed. It has shaken us to the core. But to believe we'll never openheartedly invest in collegiate athletics again with the same clear and unjaded conscience we did before this past week would be a little severe.

Maybe not, however, beyond the realm of surreal reality.

The question is this: If the moral ineptness and warped priorities of the people involved in PSU's failure of power doesn't affect our conviction about college sports, what will?

Not that any of us are searching for something more horrific than this to take us over the edge. But soon, at some point, something will. Year by year, the erosion of the innocence that we claim separates college from professional athletics is going to impact us in a way that will stop us from being able to differentiate between what happens on the field of play and the man-made dramas that occur off of it.

The unraveling of Penn State makes the other negative headlines this week seem like a drip-drip-drip: "Oklahoma placed on 3 years' probation." "Ohio State now faces 'failure to monitor'." "NCAA alleges violations at UCF." "Despite concern, Texas paid service." "Marquette response to allegations eyed."

Will the next Southern Cal, the next Ohio State, the next "The U" be the one that takes us under? The next time there is a Butch Davis (the former North Carolina football coach who was fired in the wake of an investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct in the program) or a Mike Price (the former University of Alabama football coach who was fired after reports surfaced of heavy drinking at a topless bar) or a Clem Haskins (the former University of Minnesota basketball coach forced out of his job in a scandal involving academic fraud), will it be the final final straw?

[+] EnlargeOhio State
AP Photo/Terry GilliamThe scandal that cost Jim Tressel his job and Ohio State its reputation didn't keep these students from expressing their support earlier this year.

Will the next scandal that involves a team, an athlete, a coach or an administrator be the one that makes it impossible for us to continue to lie to ourselves and say college sports is our true national passion?

Will the next one be the one to finally make us fall out of love?

What's it going to take to reach that tipping point? To get to a place where people are so turned off that meaningful steps at last can be taken to clean up the institutional cesspool?

It's like looking for optimism in a brothel full of pessimists.

Because college sports are making it close to impossible to believe in anyone or anything anymore. Soon, everyone will be suspect. Mike Krzyzewski will move under the same mighty clouds of suspicion that have followed John Calipari. Just because. On general principle. Who do we believe in? In whom do we trust?

But the truth is, as heinous as the alleged crimes are that led to the disaster at Penn State, they will not stop us from leading with our hearts when we attach ourselves to schools, programs, coaches and athletes that make up the institution of collegiate sports. We still have blind faith when it comes to this. To many of us, it is still a religion.

Yet just when we think the ugliness of a Dave Bliss, the former head basketball coach at Baylor University who was found to have lied to investigators after the death of a team member, is surely the point of no return -- we return. Just when we think it can't get any worse in college sports, something more reprehensible trumps it -- and we remain.

We still believe.

But after what just happened in State College, it is fair to ask: Will we always?

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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