In light of the recent revelations surrounding former Penn State football coach and college football icon, Joe Paterno, there have been a litany of opinions/suggestions/mandates surrounding what exactly the university should do regarding Joe Pa’s legacy, and more specifically, the Penn State football program in general.
This past week Joe Pa’s legacy has taken a hit, a tremendous blow in fact. The man ran Happy Valley for decades, was often pointed to as what is right with college athletics in this age of monied recruiting and the NFL waiting in the wings. Top university programs draw in hundreds of millions of dollars through their football programs. Basketball as well, and what occurs with both sports is they end up subsidizing the operating expenses of the rest of the sports the university offers with student-scholarship athletes. Similar to what we will probably see now with Jeremy Lin playing for the Houston Rockets, the value of a person or sport to the university extends much farther than what they do on the field. The Rockets will draw in big bucks from marketing Jeremy Lin, not only in Asia, but worldwide, and universities with successful football and basketball teams bring in money to subsidize their other sports plus boost name recognition for the university as a whole. This then extends to attracting academic talent to the university as well, which is often not talked about or thought to be shielded from something as pedestrian as 5 guys dribbling a basketball or flying across a field hitting each other in the thorax.
Bottom line, for all that is wrong with big time college athletics, minimizing or hyper-regulating it, as I have heard some calls for lately, will hurt more than help. Yes, Joe Paterno seemed to have suffered from an insulated God-like complex in his ease in covering up young kids being molested. Yes, this has actually (maybe not this case specifically, but similar wrong-doings we can assume) happened before and will happen again. But imagine for a second if we were talking about the University of Chicago’s famed Economics department. Say Joe Paterno had been the decorated Dean of the department, and the department’s tenured professor, Jerry Sandusky, had been an exemplary educator over the years. Then one day what transpired in the Penn State athletic department transpired in the University of Chicago’s Economics department. Would folks be calling for the Economics Department to be shut down? For all the good this department has done and could do in the future? Doubtful.
The best thing the Penn State football program could do for the possibly hundreds of kids affected by Mr. Sandusky is throw itself into the child-welfare arena, partner up with similar-minded NGOs to raise awareness, become a leader in this fight and use their leverage to advance the cause. They have already embarked on a similar path and I applaud that decision. But it needs to go further. This is a major university with major pull connected to a gigantic sport that smartly utilized could bring an awareness to this issue far beyond anything imaginable. By castigating an entire athletic program based on the wrong-doings of a few, folks are missing the point and not doing the survivors of these heinous acts any favors either.