Sunday, July 29, 2012

Disgust at Power

So, I'm still mulling over the NCAA's penalty levied on Penn State. In some ways, my frustration might be misplaced. Is my focus being unnecessarily pulled from the crimes committed by Jerry Sandusky and university leaders, including Joe Paterno? That's fair. At the same time, I see a well-established legal process taking place in which accused and witnesses get their day in court. The justice there isn't always delivered fairly or evenly. And it is legitimate to claim that there is no prison sentence that atones for the crimes Sandusky or the university's leaders committed. Still, there are clearly-defined rights and procedures. There are guidelines by which penalties are meted out. And, normally, there isn't collateral damage when the jury or judge renders a decision.

My faith in our justice system, as imperfect as it is, allows me to move on from what is to be done legally, both in the criminal and civil realm, with the wrongdoers.

So my frustration festers with what has happened to the athletes and the program in a sport, college football, for which my interest has always been secondary.

There was no way the NCAA could appropriately penalize Penn State. No matter what it did, its penalties were going to be too lenient or too strict. Rather than have a choice to be fair or unfair, the NCAA had the choice between exercising symbolic power or structural power. In other words, it had the choice between leveling a penalty that was going to be short but stunning in its power or to be long-lasting and leveling in its power.

It chose the latter.

Supposedly, the NCAA's crippling sanctions were to show that athletics were to never again trump the well-being of children. It was to be a reminder to the nation's big-time universities and athletic programs to re-prioritize their interests, putting students and integrity before the win-at-all-costs ethos that has become big-time college athletics.

Baloney. Within hours of the NCAA's announcement, Happy Valley was teeming with rival coaches looking to poach players from Penn State's program. From what I understand, three coaches actually contacted the Penn State coach out of courtesy saying that they intended to exercise their exceptional right to recruit Penn State players for transfer to their own programs.

Since the next potential Nittany Lion players with the potential to play on a team unencumbered by sanctions are sitting in 4th grade classrooms, the NCAA has upended the competitive balance of elite college football. Since Penn State isn't the only Big 10 program undergoing sanctions, the entire conference is weak, which gives the SEC time to maintain its hegemony over the world of college sports. And the sanctions' most crippling effects will be felt more like five years from now, when, as a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist pointed out, is when the dearth of scholarships will actually cut into the depth chart, the Nittany Lions' rivals will be able to count on PSU matches as given wins.

In the zero-sum game that is big-time college athletics, Penn State's loss is everyone else's gain. And the cynic in me doesn't believe for a minute that those coaches who benefit aren't cluck-clucking that the "grand experiment" collapsed. Their likely conclusion: Penn State tried to beat the system and then covered up horrible lies to preserve the image that really couldn't wield sufficient power to beat the system.

In other words, I don't think the connection between child welfare and program sanctions will be as clear to the other programs and its leaders as it seems to be right now to the public.

Moreover, I think time will show this to be an exceptional display of power than a meaningful one. This was an anomaly. The NCAA didn't ride to the rescue, investigate, and penalize as would a sheriff breaking up a crime ring. It didn't wield any power that wasn't given to it. Penn State investigated itself. The University's new leadership offered to confess, allocute, and submit to punishment out of regard to the severity of crimes committed. I don't criticize the university's leadership for taking that approach. What happened was that horrible. But how rare is it for a big-time university to yield like this? How likely is it that the next time a university or big-time program falls short of its ethical obligations that they will meekly and humbly submit to the NCAA's justice? I would argue it's even less after what Penn State was shown after it did so.

- - -

So why am I so fixated on this? Well, I'm a teacher. My whole professional life has been within the confines of educational institutions. Penn State, the NCAA, and football are all institutions as well, though certainly much more massive than what I work within. Like those institutions, those in which I work are trusted with the care and uplifting of children.

Also, like those institutions, the schools in which I work can be environments in which bigger-than-life people and too-big-to-be-disciplined programs can thrive. At Penn State it was a coach and a football team. At some universities it's a basketball team and its coach. At some high schools it's a choir director, a band director, a football coach, an extraordinarily influential classroom teacher. There are ample opportunities for people to erect cults of personality and wield power over individuals who are relatively powerless: students, parents in the minority. These opportunities exist within an environment where people place a lot of trust in adults to protect the welfare of youth.

And it is from that perch that I have come to believe in the power of symbols. Suspending the Penn State football program for one year would have been a powerful symbol. It would have provided a year in which fans, students, players, faculty, and coaches reassessed the meaning of that program in relation to the other meaningful elements of life. When something seems so big that others cannot live without it, that is precisely the time for an institution to experiment with life without it.

Sometimes a pause offers the occasion for solemnity, thought, and penance far more than does a beating or lashing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


So I've searched for commentator who seems to have best articulated the unease I feel about the sanctions levied by the NCAA on Penn State. Here are the finalists:

Michael Weinreb on Grantland

Bob Ford in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Michael Rosenberg and Stewart Mandel in SI

I remain disturbed and saddened by what happened at Penn State. Now, additionally, I find myself irritated at the NCAA. Penalties were levied and I don't feel any sense of closure or justice: just widening disgust, like an oil slick.

I was never really in to college athletics. I was a peripheral fan. Now, I would rather just see big-time college football and basketball dismantled. I'm out.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


As I had said: suspend the program for the year, leave the statue remain. Sure enough, Penn State's president decided to bring the statue down today.

I don't like discarding history. I don't like putting history out of sight. For good or ill, Paterno is a part of Penn State's history, as was that institution's decision to honor him with a statue while alive (which leaves me uneasy). I would have much rather have seen the statue remain, but with a nearby plaque addressing the infamous scandal that has tarnished his legacy.

I get an uneasy feeling that there might be some facts brought to light that might swing the pendulum back a bit. Granted, it's hard to imagine this publicity getting any worse.

Toppling statues seems like it's the right of a liberated people to do to their deposed tormentors, such as all the acts by which statues of Lenin were toppled after 1989 in the East. Or, it is something that conquering armies do to the likenesses of the leader of their enemy. To me, toppling statues carries with it something triumphant. There's no triumph in any element of what happens with the Penn State / Sandusky scandal. Therefore, let the statue remain, as much a testament to what went wrong as what seemed to have been going right.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Well, there goes my great idea

So, within hours of declaring myself news free comes a tragedy I cannot ignore. What a profoundly sad, hollow, and senseless act!

Is it possible for news outlets to not disclose the name and photograph of the man who allegedly perpetrated this evil? I can't help but think that the allure of being infamous helped propel this man to do his evil deed. Would the knowledge that his evil would be forever anonymous diminish copycats' desires to commit such crimes?

Thursday, July 19, 2012


So, what happened? I mean with me and the news. Suddenly, I can't spool up any interest to follow the presidential election. I can't for some reason find range on the situation in Syria. Nor can I seem to focus long enough on either the fiscal cliff or ongoing healthcare debate.

My goodness, I'm a teacher. Don't I need to follow the news so I can answer kids' questions. Or, deep down inside, do I know that things will pretty much be where I left them when I return to the grind in September.

It's a shame the Phillies aren't any good, and it's a shame I can't start following football else I'll start wishing away my summer. I seem to have a lot of found time on my hands.

But then again, I still read my newspapers each morning. Should I shut that off for a week like I've done in previous summers.

I still keep looking for news on the Penn State scandal. Perhaps I'm just hunting for something, anything, that might mitigate the hideous details brought forth in the Freeh report. Quick opinion check: statue - let it remain; football program - suspend it for a season. Perhaps I'll later be able to articulate why I feel this way. Just not today.

But I'm here on a beautiful night sitting on my porch. All I can hear is the occasional dog bark. Oh, wait, my son is laughing at something. I hear that. An air conditioner nearby is humming. My kids are wonderful, though a bit ornery in that middle-of-the-summer fashion. My wife is beautiful. We're all healthy. All those tempests that our 24/7 cycle covers seem so remote, as if they are in teapots thousands of miles away. I like this.

It's the midpoint of the summer. Perhaps I ought to declare summer 1.0 over and summer 2.0 underway. I like that. Maybe there should be more books and less news. It doesn't seem to matter too much to me anyway.

Okay, that does it. Effective now, at 9:00 pm EDT I am imposing a one-week news blackout on myself. Let's see if everything is where I left it next week at this time.

Odds are, it probably is.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Since I've been gone . . .

I followed the news, somewhat, while gone. Altogether, I was in California for 11 days with my family. The last four we had almost no access to the online world, which in some ways was a blessing. Forced me to step away from the cycle. So, what did I miss . . .

The Supreme Court's Decision: Good. It's decided. Let's move on with Obamacare. It's bad law. A bad solution to a profoundly complex problem. So, why am I glad the Supreme Court assented to it? I'm simply glad the court said yes or no rather than maybe or partially. Further, we can stop fighting 2009's battle. I'd like for Republicans to concede that there should be coverage for all, with a concession from Democrats that the nation do something, something, to meaningfully reduce the costs of that coverage. That's a grand bargain I can live with.

Natalie Munroe was terminated (though a lawsuit is pending): I'm sad but not opposed. A principal for whom I once worked would ask candidates in interviews if it was important for a teacher to be liked. He thought that answer was yes. But I always thought it was crucial for students to think the teacher liked them. Teachers who cannot even fake the sentiment that they like the students have no chance of succeeding in the classroom. That's where Natalie failed. Kids couldn't conclude that she liked them.

Towamencin Township: It's trying to petition the PA Turnpike Commission to change the name of the nearby interchange to Kulpsville. I am steadfastly opposed. That exit, as it stands now, is an extraordinary one: It's number is 31, it's old number was 31; It has only one name ("Lansdale") and one town ("Lansdale") whereas all others have two town names, each different from the name of the interchange. Exit 31 of the Northeast Extension needs to be respected as we respect the National League's decision not to go with the Designated Hitter.

And I think that's all the important stuff. A one week hop off of the vicious cycle that constitutes news these days is therapeutic.