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Russell Frank's Final Column, Final Thoughts

by on July 27, 2012 6:00 AM

And now, Grand Experiment 2.0: Can Penn Staters de-consecrate football and relegate it to its proper place as an enjoyable weekend pastime?

From the moment I arrived in State College in the 1990s I was amazed at how besotted the place was – with drink and with love for its football team and its football coach.

In the classroom I was dismayed by the lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of so many of my students. Overheard conversations were usually about drinking, occasionally about grades, rarely about the content of courses.

My sense was that kids came here primarily to have fun.

This is not to say that there aren’t serious students here. There are. Or that this is not a great university. It is. Or that fun has no place on a college campus. It does.

But Mark Emmert is right about the culture being all out of whack – not that the president of the NCAA, steward of the hyperinflated role of intercollegiate sports at American universities, has the moral authority to make such a pronouncement. The talking heads at ESPN don’t have much credibility on this issue either.

Since this is my final column before I escape to Ukraine for a few months, here are some final thoughts on the whole sorry mess.

• We don’t have to decide if Paterno, Spanier and company are good or evil. We should be able to agree that whatever their motivations, they did the wrong thing in this instance. It all boils down to two simple facts: They knew – or in Spanier’s case, should have known – that Sandusky was investigated for physical contact with a boy in a shower in 1998 and they knew Mike McQueary saw something similar in 2001. That warranted investigation.

• My sense of Paterno, whom I didn’t know, is that he was a complicated guy: He cared about his players, he cared about the university and, by many accounts, he was also an ornery control freak.

• I would like to know more about the role of the second counseling professional in the 1998 investigation. The Freeh report tells of two interviews with the boy who showered with Sandusky. The first interviewer thought there was enough smoke to report a fire. The second one found that Sandusky’s behavior “‘didn’t fit the profile of a pedophile,’” and, according to the report, “he couldn’t find any indication of child abuse.” And that was the end of that.

• I’m not sure punishing “a culture” is the best way to change it. Punishment breeds resentment. I think the financial penalties make sense. The penalties that hurt current and former players seem unjust. I have three football players in my class this summer. I feel bad for them. I feel bad for Coach O’Brien. I feel bad for all the guys who played their hearts out since 1998 and are now being told that their efforts will be expunged from the record books.

• If we’re going to reform the university, let’s start with its charter. Let us not entrust all the policy-making at an institution of higher learning to a group of people who are not educators. Let us not put so much faith in the notion that people who run businesses are qualified to run other kinds of enterprises. Let us reduce the role of agricultural interests in the governance of a 21st-century university. Let’s see some faculty representation on the board of trustees. Let’s see some people from the arts, humanities and the sciences on the board of trustees.

• A sense of proportion is called for. Penn State has shared the front pages of many newspapers for the past week with the movie theatre massacre in Colorado. Both events made people cry. But the NCAA sanctions didn’t kill anybody and they didn’t debilitate anybody.

• • • 

I started writing for in Fall 2009 – about 150 columns ago (every one of them is still on the site, should you require an all-natural sleep aid some night). I wrote about back trouble and backpacking, about the ethics of journalism and the aesthetics of nature walks, and of course, ad nauseam, about the Woo People and the Sandusky scandal.

I have been honored by your attention.

One of the things I like about writing a weekly column is that it makes me more attentive to what’s going on around me and within me. So I’m going to keep doing it. If you’re interested in reading about my adventures and misadventures in Ukraine, you’ll find me at starting in early September.

In this hard time I leave you with these words from Czeslaw Milosz, who got through the miseries of life in Poland during World War II by following the advice of Martin Luther:

“When asked what he would do if he knew tomorrow was going to be the end of the world, he said, ‘I would plant apple trees.’”

Recent Columns:

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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