On Paterno, Penn State and the folly of sports worship

Today’s newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

On Paterno, Penn State and the folly of sports worship


November 12, 2011

Each morning in classrooms across America, schoolchildren stand up, place their right hand over their heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, during which they declare that we are “One Nation Under God.”

But in State College, Pa. – where this week legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno crashed in a staggering fall from grace – it’s unclear whether the locals long ago added another line to the pledge in order to explain that they’re also “One Town Beneath a Deity.”

Throughout the Keystone State, and particularly within the isolated confines of PSU’s Happy Valley, Paterno has often been called “Saint Joe.” And for decades, thousands of blue-and-white-clad acolytes have made pilgrimages to Beaver Stadium each Saturday afternoon in order to watch the bespectacled coach’s Nittany Lions teams compete.

And to also worship at the altar of JoePa.

But, while Paterno may be major college football’s all-time winningest coach with 409 victories in addition to a pair of national championships, he of course isn’t a god. Or a saint, for that matter. He’s just a man. And men, as we all should remember, are simply men, while sports gods are nothing but myths.

This past Wednesday night, Paterno – the man and the myth – was officially (and appropriately) ousted by the Penn State Board of Trustees in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal involving former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky that has rocked both Penn State and all of college sports to their cores.

Because of Paterno’s negligence (or his complicity) in properly reporting to authorities what university officials knew about Sandusky’s alleged sexual assault of a young child in 2002, a despicable situation was covered up and allowed to grow into the worst scandal the sporting world has ever seen.

Here in the Land of Lincoln, our state’s flagship university has never won a single national championship in football or basketball, let alone multiple ones like the Penn State football program has achieved.

And, you know what? This week, I thank goodness for that.

Because, on Wednesday night, as I watched the TV coverage of students having tipped over a news van and toppled streetlights on the Penn State campus in the name of JoePa and debated Paterno’s ouster via Facebook and Twitter with die-hard Penn State fans wearing blinders, I cringed at the levels of devotion that Paterno commanded.

And I also shuddered at the thought of how I’d feel if this sad, sordid saga was instead playing out here in our state at the University of Illinois.

Unlike PSU, as well as similar championship-laden and scandal-ridden Big Ten institutions Ohio State and Indiana where the likes of Jim Tressel, Woody Hayes and Bob Knight have loomed so large, Illinois has never resided under the rule of an almighty coaching king.

Or, some might call it, a dictator.

However, if U. of I. did have a coach of that enormous stature, I wonder if the school’s students and the state’s citizens would blindly defend him in the face of a scandal such as the one that’s now infested Penn State? Or would most of us demand his firing and then applaud the ones who ordered it?

I’d like to believe it’s the latter. But I suppose we really don’t know. Thankfully, in this instance.

This, however, I do know: It’s fine to cheer on athletes and celebrate coaches, but when you begin to deify them, you have a serious problem.

After all, Jim Tressel lied. Tiger Woods philandered. Roger Clemens cheated. And, now, Joe Paterno ignored. So, going forward let’s try to remember that sportsmen are just men, not gods.

We could even make a pledge about it.