ECA member Charley Sullivan, a well-respected rowing coach at the University of Michigan, offered these thoughts on the Penn State controversy surrounding the departure of accused former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky following criminal charges of pedophilia.
A not so modest proposal re: Penn State.
Two days ago, I wrote a piece calling for Penn State to keep Joe Paterno, and their football team, off the field this Saturday. Coach Paterno is now gone, and, in my opinion, none too soon. I’m disappointed that he still didn’t seem to “get it” as he left, but perhaps such things come with time.
Most of the folks who have read my piece have agreed with what I wrote about not playing a game on Saturday. But some others have had a problem with that suggestion. The basic thought has focused on two related questions: “Why hurt the current team, which had nothing to do with the problem?” and “How does this help the boys who were abused?” Both are fair questions.
I agree, the current team, with at least one assistant coach clearly excepted, had nothing to do with the current state of affairs. At 8-1, they’re having a great season, and this Saturday, they are scheduled to face a national powerhouse, Nebraska, who should give them a great contest. This is the type of game for which they have prepared for many years, not just while they have been at Penn State. As a coach, I know what it means to ask people not to compete. I have friends who didn’t get to compete at the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of Jimmy Carter’s boycott. A crew I helped coach this summer didn’t get to row at the Under-23 World Championship trials because the coxswain missed the weigh-in by two minutes. I’ve felt that in my bones, and I know what I’m asking of them is a lot.
But to be honest, my concern here isn’t for the football players. It’s for the boys who were abused. It’s for all the other victims of abuse who have had to relive prolonged past violations this week as the story has played out in the press. It’s for the young children I’ve seen traces of in my work in Southeast Asia who are being raped right now as I write this. Something didn’t happen for them. When their lives were being torn apart, the world didn’t stop. And it should have.
Not playing the game Saturday will, for a short time, in one place, stop the particular world that was Penn State football that abused children. It will send the message that we find the care and healing of these children to be more important than the playing of what is, in the end, a game. It will allow the abuse not to be potentially trivialized in a sea of “everyone wear blue shirts to show support for the victims.”
I get that coming together to cheer for something would feel good for the Penn State nation right now. But as the guys on my team say on occasion about an off-mark comment “too soon, dude, too soon.”
So here’s my new thought. It’s not the playing of a game that I’m opposed to. It’s the band, and the cheerleaders, and the crowd. It’s the spectacle. I just don’t see how that begins to be appropriate, and I don’t see how it could be done any other way.
So let the two teams play. But do it, Old School, in a high school stadium somewhere. No crowd, no fans, just their parents and families, the coaching staffs and the refs. No TV production teams and announcers in their ties and designer suits, just a video camera so there’s tape for scouting and for memory.
And let the Penn State community come together during that same time at the Penn State stadium, 105,000 strong. Let everyone wear a blue shirt. And let them sit, in silence, in vigil and in respect, while the teams play somewhere else. And let them start to imagine how to heal their community and their university.
And, as I think about this, let every college football game this weekend be played the same way, not for the hoopla and the pagentry and the business of it, but for the game. And let all of us who would watch them come together in our gameless stadiums, or in front of our gameless televisions, and imagine start to imagine how to heal our communities, and our world.
This Saturday, for three hours, let the world stop.