The statue of Joe Paterno has been removed, covered in a blue tarpaulin and carted off into the dust and dark of storage. There was always something strange and eerie about that statue, the smiling and bespectacled presence of the legendary coach emblazoned into bronze, as if Penn State wasn’t an academic institution at all but a kind of football theme park, Welcome to JoePa Land.
A man of lesser ego would never have permitted a statue to be built of him. He would have seen the wrongful idolatry of it, a living monument in the way that despotic leaders insist on being living monuments. But as we all know now, Joe Paterno had no lesser ego. He was all ego behind the tattered sweater on the sidelines and the studied avuncularity off the sidelines that too many thousands mistook for accessibility. Quoting Virgil does not make you a learned man, just as saying hello to students does not make you a man of the people. It would seem that college coaches should say hello to college students on their college campus. Except in America.
Joe Paterno was the dictator of Penn State, the more football wins he accrued, the greater his invincibility. There is something sad and absurdly American about that, this insane notion that football actually serves some societal purpose beyond bread and circuses for the distracted masses. It is only in America that a football coach would be honored like that, molded into immortality. Such worship isn’t the way the country should be. It isn’t the way higher education should be.
It was an insult to students even if they were too drunk on football Saturdays in Happy Valley to know it, and an insult to faculty members who did know it but had been dumped into steerage by the football madness of a school too misguided to truly treasure its academic resources. Too many students, and too many alumni, and too many administrators, thought Penn State was only great because of its football. The institution and the game were inextricably linked. There was danger in that. The priorities were terribly and pathetically misplaced as they are at too many American universities. We see other countries mocking us and running economic circles around us and we wonder why.
But misplaced priorities at Penn State metastasized into something else entirely, a hideous tumor of shame and scandal. Paterno and top administrators willfully ignored the innumerable warnings and evidence of a sexual animal in their midst, aiding and abetting in his rape of little boys as they hemmed and hawed and wrote endless and empty emails to each other as if that was somehow taking action.
So many knew that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky showered with little boys. Some knew that he fondled them, and was sexually inappropriate with them, and approached them from behind with the unmistakable slapping sound of skin ramming into skin. But nobody did anything. That’s what happens when you idolize a football coach who has ruled for too long and has become insulated by power like all men of power become insulated by power, has no world outside of the football program he has created, is only interested in the preservation of it even if it means some buttf---ing here and there. All part of the trade-off.
But it’s over now, although it will never be over for the victims raped and molested by Sandusky. There is a resolution. There is a black hole in the core of Penn State, 13 football seasons vaporized and the school hit with enough sanctions yesterday by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to destroy the program for a decade and maybe forever.
The loss of roughly 10 football scholarships a year for four years. A ban for a similar length of time on postseason play. Every win between 1998 and 2011 vacated, which no longer makes Joe Paterno the winningest coach in college football history. A penalty of $60 million.
The punishment is appropriate and deserved, the swiftness of it surprising given the NCAA's history of taking too long to do nothing, little more than a cash register for the college-sports industrial complex.
Football is a business and college-bound big-time players and their families are wise and entrepreneurial. Dad and Mom want their sons to go to teams that win and are nationally ranked. They want their sons to play for teams that will be in bowl games. They want maximum exposure for their sons. Penn State fit that criteria for 30-odd years, but not anymore.
The new coach, Bill O’Brien, is trying to pump up the existing troops with the us-against-the world mentality, the lesson of what happened at Penn State utterly lost on him. No big surprise. The rally cry may work for a little bit, but Penn State will no longer be nationally competitive. The blue-chip recruits that routinely came to the school will no longer matriculate. The few that remain can now transfer without any loss of eligibility. The team will routinely lose and for all the vows of loyalty, Beaver Stadium will no longer come close to filling up with 110,000 strong.
The football culture at Penn State has no choice but to diminish, and one can only hope, for the sake of the school, that the diminishment is permanent.
The University of Chicago dropped football in 1939. The school left the Big Ten after its president, Robert Hutchins, concluded that football had no place in an academic setting. The alumni whined and wallowed in the self-pity of a football-less life, a psychic suicide. But the University of Chicago, last time I checked, has 87 Nobel Prize winners among its faculty and alumni.
Penn State is one of the finest publicly supported universities in the United States. The success of football helped to build the school, but the school no longer needs the crutch of the game to continue on that path. In the wacked-up environment in which America lives today, we call the sanctions by the NCCA “punishment.” But the sanctions are not remotely punishment if the end result is to push academics to the forefront of the reputation of Penn State, and not the backside. That's a bonus, and it should be the priority of every college and university in America, but of course it is not.
The sanctions change Penn State, but they will not change the culture of college football. It is too late for that now, too many rabid alumni defining their college experience by wins and losses, too many millions shelled out for television rights by the true Darth Vader of college football, ESPN, too many coaches making two or three times more than the college president and still the warlords of the quadrangle.
It is doubtful any of them believe that what happened at Penn State was egregious enough to warrant more than the penalty meted out. Coaches are the most selfish men on the planet. They all stem from the same brotherhood and they are all fundamentally cowards when it comes to breaking free from the pack and saying what should be said. They are emboldened and reinforced by the stature we as a society give them. They look in the mirror and—don’t be fooled by the false humility of their postgame interviews—they see exactly what Joe Paterno saw, a living monument to their omnipotence and greatness.
Joe Paterno’s monument got taken down over the weekend. But as the frenzy of college football continues unabated with more piles of more money, there isn’t a single coach who will understand the symbolism of that. Which isn’t to say they are totally oblivious to what happened at Penn State. They will work harder than ever not to get caught in their own acts of immoral complicity.