“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather
Now I stand up no more?”
I’m in trouble now, and I’m blaming it all on Joe Paterno. In the fall, when I click on a football game, Jeanne hops up and dashes out of the room. She’s a vegetarian, and can tell just by glancing at those large bodies banging against each other that they devour herds of innocent farm animals. Now she knows the game is also corrupt in ways we hadn’t even considered, and my normal defense about the grace and courage of football players sounds feeble and irrelevant, even to me. The Penn State scandal is oozing like an oil slick over Happy Valley, and it’s on the move. Like the Catholic Church pedophile debacle, and the corruption on Wall Street, once you start turning over stones, multiple vermin crawl out. The NCAA has spoken, and criminal trials are coming.
Of course, we already knew there were lots of sleazy coaches, several of whom have waved their bullhorns in Florida, fielding teams with low grades and high arrest rates. But Joe Paterno, we’d been told, was above all this. In fact, the stories about him reminded me of my old high school coach, Tony Ciardi, who didn’t smoke, drink, curse, or tolerate even bending the rules of good sportsmanship. He made us play hard, but if we ever gloated over a downed opponent, or showboated in any way, we’d be on the bench. As for academics, he wanted the entire team at Mountain Lakes High School to go to college, and he pushed us that way. He often ate lunch with the other teachers; “Gosh hang it, Meinke,” he’d say, stretching his scatalogical limit, “Miss Vanderbilt told me you were late to English class again today.” I’d do 50 push-ups; those were the days! The high school girls had crushes on him, and in an inchoate way we boys wanted to be pure and hard like Coach Ciardi, not overweight smoking jolly men like our salesmen fathers. Back then we had no idea of how hard our fathers actually worked.
The Penn State cover-up showed us how deeply the football-money-power structure can corrupt a university. “Joe P” had metamorphosed into a god, complete with a statue and an actual halo on a large mural in downtown State College. I like to think that the halo (now removed, along with the statue) was painted on humorously — but I’m not sure about that.
It was necessary to remove far more than a halo, and the NCAA was right to hit Paterno and the program harder than the student-athletes. Penn State can still play football — no “Death Penalty” — but for lesser stakes and with a “lesser” team. Joe will never again be called the “winningest coach”; this title reverts to FSU’s Bobby Bowden, who has his own shadows, and the students can play elsewhere if they want, or keep their scholarships and play for “fun” instead of bowls and championships. It will take the football program decades to recover, but this crime went on for years, and so should the penalty.
One last word about Jeanne’s relationship to football. Jeanne was a student at Syracuse University during the time when their greatest football star in history, Jim Brown, was showing off his truly amazing stuff. One day Jeanne was playing in a sorority “Powder Puff” football game — no tackling — and scored a touchdown. After the game, Brown, the campus hero, trotted up to her and said, “Nice runnin’, man.” She recovered in a few days, and I tell everyone I married a fast woman.
Their voices, dying as they fly,
Thick on the wind are sown;
The names of men blow soundless by,
My fellows’ and my own.
—both quotes from “A Shropshire Lad” by A.E. Housman (1859-1936)