Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Living Up To (Or Down To) One's Own Image

Some odd coincidences led up to this post.  I subscribe to the ESPN Classic Network on TV because I like the show Sports Century, which features biographies of many of our sports heroes from the previous century.  In 1999 ESPN did a countdown of the top 100 athletes of the twentieth century, with a show on each of them.  As a result of the popularity of the series they made other shows of great athletes who hadn't made the original list, as well as shows about coaches, and celebrated sports events. I have the DVR set to record the show - all new episodes.  And I watch them with some regularity.  I like to watch biography on TV.  In addition to the excellence the athlete has achieved, invariably the person went through a struggle on some sort.  This duality of struggle and excellence makes for good viewing.

On Halloween there was supposed to be a show about Carl Yastrzemski.  A couple of nights ago I got set to watch it, but the show wasn't there.  In its place was a Dick Schaap One On One Interview with Joe Paterno, for a half hour, followed by another show, this one a special with Paterno and Coach K from Duke.  I watched these shows instead, having an eerie feeling throughout the viewing.  It didn't occur to me till afterward that these shows were on because Paterno had just broken the career wins record by beating the team I root for, Illinois.  In that game I thought the refs did a bit of a homer job on us and that we'd have won the game otherwise.  But it didn't feel it was a conspiracy, just the usual home team advantage.

With all the press now about the situation at Penn State, one could not watch this programming (I believe the Dick Schaap interview was from 2003) wondering whether the particular coverup of Jerry Sandusky's sexual predation was part of a larger pattern.  In her column this morning, Maureen Dowd in her column this morning wrote:

Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique. And sports, as my former fellow sports columnist at The Washington Star, David Israel says, is “an insular world that protects its own, and operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully.” Penn State rakes in $70 million a year from its football program. 

Dowd has written many previous columns about the Catholic Church's coverup of abuse committed by Priests, so I suppose she felt obligated to write a similar piece on Penn State.  But I'd want to know if this is part of a larger pattern before arriving at this conclusion.  If I had a very close friend do a heinous thing, I don't know how I'd resolve that.  I'm not saying that Dowd is wrong in her conclusion.  I am saying that this "insular world" comment requires additional evidence for support.  I wonder if now there will be a search for this additional evidence, looking for other sorts of indiscretion if not overt wrong doing.

In the Schaap interview Paterno talked about visiting Green Bay after the Hula Bowl, to have a chat about the head coaching job there.  Paterno said he didn't really want the job and so was cagey and not forthcoming about his own preferences.  It's a completely different context, for sure, and may sound innocent for the situation that he described.  But that Paterno by self admission can be cagey and not forthcoming suggests to me there should be a further look at his broader record.  It was also clear in the Schaap interview, where they discussed the Paterno Library, that Paterno was very prideful and concerned about his image.   That itself is not a sin.  The vast majority of us are egotistical, perhaps to a fault.  But if other sins were committed it might explain why.  It is now being reported that support for Paterno on Penn State's Board of Trustees is drying up.  Yet many students appear to be extremely loyal to Paterno.  It may be too early to ask how the Penn State community heals itself.  From where I sit, that can only happen by having a rather full picture of what was going on.

The Board has presumably also lost confidence in Penn State's President, Graham Spanier.  For most of us he is far less visible than the football coach, so have even less of a basis on which to offer a judgment.  I have one experience, most of you will think it is comparatively minor, on which to make a surmisal.  Penn State was one of the campuses RIAA went after about illegal file sharing.  An agreement was reached to resolve the issue.  Part of that agreement was a promotional video to warn students about the evils of downloading copyrighted music without paying for it.  Graham Spanier appears in that video.  That upset me at the time and I wrote a long post about it.  In that post there is a link to the Web site RIAA sponsored.  (I'm unsure whether the video that is there now is the same one that I railed about five years ago.  I watched it this morning and it seemed milder than what I remembered.)

My conclusion is this.  We want people with substantial authority to act ethically, but for their own survival and the survival of the institutions where they work, rather than ethical behavior the operational rule is to respond to political pressure when it is potent but to not respond otherwise.  Penn State will get its comeuppance because it put on a veneer that it was above those survival behaviors.  The rest of us might learn to not lionize important people, in the sports world or elsewhere.  That intense admiration sews the seeds of betrayal and coverup.

1 comment:

Lanny Arvan said...

This Gene Wojciechowski column gives a fuller picture of Paterno, including his dark side. It makes the issue seem even worse, because Paterno may have known there was a problem even earlier, in 1999 or before that. But it makes the events more understandable.