State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

So Much for Teachable Moments

by on September 10, 2014 6:45 AM

Though whipping off my shirt and singing "Sweet Caroline" are not my preferred ways of showing it, I, too, am glad the NCAA has lifted the bowl and scholarship restrictions on the Penn State football team.

I agreed with those who said that whatever Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz did or failed to do did not make the Sandusky case a football scandal and therefore, the NCAA had no business penalizing the football team.

I still find it beyond absurd that NCAA President Mark Emmert called on Penn State and its sister schools throughout the land to "eradicate the 'sports are king' mindset that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators." (Wasn't the NCAA the very organization that collaborated with the major television networks to make sports "king" at American universities?)

I agreed that the hundreds of kids who played for Penn State from 1998 to 2011 did not deserve to have their victories taken away.

The comments of Adam Taliaferro, who has struggled back from a near-crippling spinal cord injury he sustained in a game in 2000, were particularly resonant: "NCAA says games didn't exist," he tweeted back in 2012. "I got the metal plate in my neck to prove it did...I almost died playing 4 PSU."

But one of the problems with a punishment that doesn't fit the crime is that it instills an outsized sense of grievance in the hearts of the punished. Nittany Lion loyalists have gone from believing this isn't a football scandal, which is true, to believing there is nothing wrong with the football culture at Penn State, which is false.

So what is wrong with the football culture at Penn State? Exactly what the NCAA said was wrong with it: It's too big. Too important. The Sandusky scandal wasn't proof that this was so; it just called attention to it.

Those who would like Penn State to be known, first and foremost, for its academic excellence, and would like to attract students who come for the educational opportunities rather than for the fun and games, could not help regarding the scandal as an opportunity for the university to rededicate itself to academics and relegate sports to the periphery where they belong – as amusing diversions from the main enterprise.

That hasn't happened and now it looks less likely that it will happen. Football has been vindicated. On with the show.

If not for the economic fallout, I almost think it would have been better to pull the plug on the football program altogether – the so-called death penalty – just so everyone could have seen that there is, indeed, life after football. Preferably, the university itself would have made that call, rather than the NCAA, just as the University of Chicago did back in 1939.

"Football has the same relation to education that bullfighting has to agriculture," said Chicago's President Robert Hutchins. Amen to that.

I've written these words many times before but I have to write them again: I like sports. I've been a baseball junkie since I was a chubby Little Leaguer. As a native New Yorker I was a big fan of the Joe Namath-led Jets and the Willis Reed-led Knicks.

I love watching great plays in any sport, and the drama of a tight game in any sport.

I get the value of distraction and the yearning to belong and the desire to take pride in the accomplishments of others, just in case we don't have any accomplishments of our own to take pride in. There is so much to be anxious about in this life, so much loneliness, so much self-doubt. Who can fault us for wanting a respite from anxiety, for wanting to feel connected to something larger than ourselves, for wanting to feel proud about something?

I also appreciate that most of us are actually quite sane about sports. Even the maniacs we see in the crowd whose faces are painted blue, or are bare-chested in below-freezing weather, or the over-wrought fans we see gnawing on towels or praying or crying their eyes out after a loss -- an hour later most of them have regained their equanimity and are ready to re-engage with the joys and sorrows of daily life.

When I see Penn State students' passion for football, I tend to wish they were passionate about something else, something more important, like, you know, global warming, or fracking, or racial profiling, or terrorism or corrupt politicians. This doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. One can be passionate about football and be passionate about climate change.

But I fear that sports are so compelling, and so omni-present (there were college and pro games on TV Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday this past week) that they consume all our passion, the way we say of a big gabber that he uses up all the oxygen in the room.

Whether or not the Sandusky scandal was a football scandal, it challenged us to ponder the role of football at this university. After watching the video of the celebration on Monday, I fear the answer is: big as ever.


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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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