Friday, July 27, 2012

It's Only A Game

There's been a lot of noise from my hometown lately about the sanctions handed down by the president of the NCAA to the Penn State football program.  I'm often asked about this ongoing story because I grew up there, attended PSU as an undergrad and while working in radio had something to do with the football broadcasts, I put together the highlights for the post-game show on radio for many years.  The basis for these sanctions is the Freeh Report which seeks to explain some of the events related to the sexual abuse trail of Jerry Sandusky.  The report takes various artifacts such as emails and attempts to place them on a time line, imagining scenarios that preceded or followed them.  It supposes conversations that may or may not have taken place and creates a story line.  Even it's most ardent supporters would have to admit that nothing was proved, it's primary findings, reported by Mr. Freeh are possible story lines for what happened.
  As to the sanctions, as I understand the NCAA rules, the president has complete power to issue whatever sanctions they choose and there is no board or congress  that need approve anything, they have total control over the situation.  With that in mind it seems pointless to argue over whether they were fair or not, fair doesn't enter into the discussion, that's just the way it goes.  I do believe you can have a discussion about whether or not the sanctions will have any impact on any future pedophiles who might work for Penn State in the future.  As a teacher and parent I have spent a lot of time considering consequences and trying to make sure that any punishment fits the behavior and is likely to cause a decrease in future occurrences.  In this case, I'd say the NCAA failed.  Nothing in the sanctions is likely to deter an abuser of children.  "Let's remember the children" is a phrase often heard in this debate, and the criminal trail of Mr. Sandusky was an excellent example of doing just that.  Someone who deceived thousands of people in the community while abusing children was finally caught and stopped.  There have been multiple story lines suggested for why he was able to deceive people for so long, these include the ideas that people in the football program covered for him or you can follow the narrative that implies that the attorney general for the state, now it's governor delayed action in deference to the money that could be raised by people affiliated with Sandusky's charity The Second Mile.  Those are important questions to ask, and it's worth noting that answers may not always be available, and if that's the case, inventing story lines or imagining answers, while satisfying in the moment may not have lasting value.  Sometimes, asking questions is the most important thing, because what you find might be more than the original answers you were seeking.
Many times I've heard people say "I just want to get to the truth".  "Truth" may be an elusive goal in the best of circumstances and given that Joe Paterno has died, and with him a vital part of the story will be unknown.  We may be able to guess at what he thought as the Freeh report does, but "Truth"? That might be too much to ask for.
Rather than looking for truth, I'd like to hope we gain knowledge.  It's often said "Knowledge is power" and if we gain some knowledge that can alter the future for the better that might be a more realistic and useful goal.
The sanctions issued by the NCAA president will likely have little effect on a search for truth or knowledge but according to the rules, they don't have to have any connection to those goals.  Many fellow alumni are incensed over the vacating of wins from the last fourteen seasons and this is perhaps the most interesting sanction for myself to think about.  I have to say, that particular ruling has the least impact on me as an alumni and fan.  I used to go to Penn State games in the late 1960s when the stadium was not even half the size it is today.  We watched future Hall of Fame players like Franco Harris and Jack Ham play the game with little or no respect from the national press.  Even President Nixon got in on the act of slighting PSU in those days, but did it have any impact on the enjoyment of the games? No.  Someone can say that Penn State lost every game between 1998 and 2012 and what difference will that make? None, the games happened, you watched them or you didn't, you enjoyed them or you didn't.  No one alleges that anything happened on the field to favor one side or the other and retroactively changing the statistics has no effect on children who were victims of Jerry Sandusky nor will it have any impact on children in the future.  Those statistics were not the games themselves, they're more like an echo from an event, a brief sketch of something passing by.  Back in the day we believed that our hometown team was the best in the country, the rankings didn't support that, the national media didn't agree, and as I mentioned even the President told us we were not the best, and to this fan none of that mattered.
So the fact that according to NCAA statistics, Penn State now has a whole lot less wins on the books is meaningless.  To me, a well played football game is great fun to watch no matter what the records of the teams involved.  I think we might all do well to remember, it's only a game.  Taking them out of the win column does nothing to diminish the skill and determination of the players and coaches and taking them off the books does nothing to right the wrongs of one person, or even many people if it's proven at some point that others participated in a cover up.  So much has been made of these statistics but they don't really change anything after all they're only numbers and it's only a game.