Sunday, July 29, 2012

WHEN ICONS FALL


Another chapter in the sad saga of Penn State football unfolded this past Monday when NCAA President Mark Emmert announced crippling sanctions against the once-proud program. The lamentable story is well known to college football fans and casual observers:  former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky leveraged the aura of the Penn State program and the Nittany Lions’ training facilities to engage in grotesque acts of pedophilia against at least a dozen young, defenseless victims.  Former FBI director Louis Freeh, who Penn State trustees engaged to investigate the matter, concluded in his report that in 2001 assistant coach Mike McQueary witnessed at least one of these crimes in process in the PSU football shower facility.  McQueary reported the incident to iconic head coach Joe Paterno.  Paterno reported the story to his superiors.  Even after these revelations, Sandusky continued to use his position with a local charity and his history with the PSU football program over the next decade to lure more victims into his pathetic and criminal web. 

Sandusky has been tried and convicted of 42 counts of molestation, and will likely spend the remaining years of his life in prison.  Coach Paterno, known in Happy Valley as “JoePa,” was fired in disgrace with a few games left last season, and mercifully passed away earlier this year.  His once gaudy legend is now forever tarred.  The Penn State Athletic Director and the President, also complicit in their conspiracy of silence to protect Sandusky and the Lions’ football program, face civil and possibly criminal trials.  They too have been fired.  

It will take a Herculean effort for new coach Bill O’Brien to rebuild this program with all of this bad news, but to top it off the NCAA instituted backbreaking penalties against the Lions.  These  include financial penalties of $60M, equivalent to the annual revenues of the football program; a four-year ban on post-season play; forfeiture of Penn State’s football victories for the past eleven years; and loss of approximately 1/3 of their football scholarship allotment for the next four years.  

Painfully coincidentally, a few miles away in the state of Pennsylvania, another esteemed institution was subjected to the pain and indignity of one of its leaders abandoning his moral responsibility.  Last week Monsignor William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was sentenced for three to six years in prison for his role in betraying the Catholic faithful.  Monsignor Lynn was the Secretary of the Clergy for the Archdiocese, and shuffled Fr. Avery, an abusive priest, from one parish to another, knowing his sinful and criminal predilection to molest young boys.  Sure enough, Fr. Avery continued his disgusting ways, and abused young parishioners in his new assignment.  Fr. Avery is currently serving a 2 ½ to 5 year sentence, and Monsignor Lynn is now the highest ranking member of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy to be sent to prison for his enabling role in the priest abuse scandals. 

These events are particularly painful to me because they so directly involve two institutions which were instrumental in my young life, and continue to be important to me as an adult: college football and the Roman Catholic Church.  My official football-playing career ended with my last game in my senior year of high school, but even before playing the game my brother Jim and I were devout college football fans.  We had cheering interests in perennial powers Notre Dame and Ohio State, but appreciated the talents of such powerhouses as Texas, Nebraska, Michigan, Alabama and USC.  We devoured Street & Smith’s College Football preview every summer, subscribed to College Football News during the season, faithfully watched the college football games of the week, and had encyclopedic knowledge of teams and athletes around the country.  Penn State was just assuming its status as a national contender as we came of age as college football fans.  Joe Paterno was the head coach of the Nittany Lions from 1966 to his ill-fated termination in 2011, and was revered as a leader who did things the right way.  He presided over more than 400 victories (prior to the forfeiture of 108 of those victories as a result of the NCAA sanctions), coached dozens of All Americans and a Heisman Trophy winner, and won two National Championships.  Penn State was heralded as the place where they did things the right way.  Little would anyone know of the cancer that was thriving in the apparently healthy body of the Nittany Lions’ program.  


Earlier this month Penn State removed the statue of Joe Paterno
outside Beaver Stadium.  It wasn't this dramatic.
Yet even as 108,000 fans faithfully filled the pews on football Saturdays, there were signs of decline and decay.  While I don’t now have the fervor I once had as a young fan, in recent years I sensed the Penn State program was losing its luster under the never-ending Paterno tenure.  Certainly membership in the Big Ten Conference posed a tougher weekly challenge than the relatively modest schedule Penn State had previously played, so it is no surprise that Penn State did not have the lustrous won-loss records it enjoyed as an independent in the 70’s and 80’s.  But beyond that, Joe Paterno had lost his grip as the leader of the Penn State program.  In the past decade he seemed more mascot than coach.  His post-game press conferences were painful and unenlightening.  He was injured on the sidelines when he couldn’t get out of the way of young, fast athletes.  In the past few years, he coached games not from the sidelines but from the press box.  I sense that JoePa was tenuously holding on to his role to achieve the mantle of college football’s all-time winningest coach, a title he posthumously forfeited this past week.  
Stories emerge that Penn State leadership attempted to persuade Joe to retire in the later years, but he artfully ducked their visits.  Did Sandusky engage in heinous acts of abuse under the head coach’s nose because he sensed JoePa didn’t have complete control of the program?  We can understand Paterno’s interest, perhaps selfish, in hanging on to one of perhaps twenty of the most glamorous coaching jobs in college football.  But why didn’t the PSU Athletic Director more aggressively force the issue of Paterno gracefully ending his tenure?  What about the college President?  They each have roles in this tragedy as fellow enablers of Sandusky’s exploits, not only by failing to aggressively pursue an independent investigation of reports of Sandusky’s abuses, but also by failing to protect the institution they were hired and entrusted to protect.  By ‘the institution’, I don’t mean the football coach or the coaching staff, but Penn State University.  They made the easy decisions years ago, first by looking the other way when advised of Sandusky’s abuses, then later by not forcing the hand of an aging Joe Paterno who had clearly lost control of a proud, renowned program.  As a lifelong college football fan, it is painful to witness the indignity and feckless leadership of one of its premier institutions.  

I am also a proud and practicing Roman Catholic.  It is even more painful that Monsignor Lynn and others of his like had greater interest in protecting the reputation of the Church and the careers of abusive priests than the health and safety of their flock, especially the youngest and most vulnerable among them.  Clerical leaders like Monsignor Lynn throughout the American Roman Catholic Church allowed the priest abuse scandals to simmer to a boil, also by looking the other way when they knew there were criminals among them.  The coordinator of the Altar Boy program at my parish in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati was one of the primary actors in the priest-abuse scandals as they played out in Ohio in the 70’s and 80’s.  Thankfully I was never approached by him, but we all heard stories of his exploits, even then.  The leadership of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, including the revered (practically saintly, if you listen to his cheerleaders) Cardinal Bernadin, also failed to exercise their solemn duties and responsibilities to protect the institution and the people to which they were entrusted.    

These scandals represent the worst in our leaders.  They sadly are symptomatic of the failures of leadership in institutions in all facets of our country.  Democrats sell the government purse to teachers’ and other public employee unions, environmentalists, and race baiters.  Republicans grow the deficit by cutting deals with farmers, corporations, and other institutions, and reducing taxes while leaving spending untouched.  Perhaps even worse, political leadership knows our country is heading over a fiscal cliff, yet continues to do business as usual, merrily running up $1 Trillion plus annual deficits.  The people grow weary and disenchanted or, worse, disinterested.  

When College Presidents and Athletic Directors look the other way in the face of child abuse; when trusted clerical leadership put vulnerable members of their flock in harm’s way; when politicians of both parties idly run up deficits they know will never be repaid; we lose all trust in the intent of our leaders to protect and preserve our values.  Yet when a Business leader announces his convictions and belief in the sanctity of matrimony as defined in the Scriptures, he and his company are pillaged and attacked by special interest groups who never built a business or productively employed an individual in their lives. 

Almost 240 years ago our Founders ‘mutually pledge(d) to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor’ in supporting the Declaration of Independence, knowing they had ‘a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.’   Do we have such men and women as leaders today?  Will they have the initiative or opportunity to exercise such leadership? 

The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan notes the failures of the past decade:
"Maybe the most worrying trend the past 10 years can be found in this phrase: "They forgot the mission." So many great American institutions—institutions that every day help hold us together—acted as if they had forgotten their mission, forgotten what they were about, what their role and purpose was, what they existed to do. You, as you read, can probably think of an institution that has forgotten its reason for being. Maybe it's the one you're part of. "
But also presents a possible--if difficult--solution:
So what to do? ...[T]urning around institutions is a huge, long and uphill fight. It probably begins with taking the one thing we all hate to take in our society, and that is personal responsibility.
If you work in a great institution: Do you remember the mission? Do you remember why you went to work there, what you meant to do, what the institution meant to you when you viewed it from the outside, years ago, and hoped to become part of it?
If the people responsible for the apolitical institutions in this country from which we receive genuine fulfillment fail in the responsibilities entrusted to them, expect citizens of this country to seek fulfillment elsewhere, in, say...politics?  No, that would never happen.

Oh...I guess it did happen.

As always, the choice is before the American people. May we have the courage to choose wisely; the future of the Republic depends on it.  

1 comment:

  1. Tim,

    Wow you really put a lot of subjects into this blog post. It is REALLY well written, balanced and thought-provoking. One sentence really struck me - "The people grow weary and sienchanted, or worse disenchanted". I think so many of us have grown so disenchanted with our political, business (see Nuti, Bill) and religious leaders. They seem to have lost their service role and found a new role for stuffing money and power into their own pockets. As college sports become more corrupted by money, they join the others. I fear for ouryoung people. Where will their true heroes come from?

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