Stanford and Penn State
Every morning as a kid, like clockwork, I woke up at 6:30am to grab the San Jose Mercury News from our front door and read Section D (Sports) cover-to-cover. It was a daily routine. A ritual, really. And it was a reflection of what I spent the rest of my day doing as well. I think because school always came easily to me, I quickly found myself filling my day with sports: playing, trying out, watching, reading, following, talking, coaching.
If Americans are a people obsessed with sports, I guess I would qualify as evidence of that. The son of two immigrants, I somehow found myself at age 10 reading high school sports scores before eating toast in the morning.
When I was at Stanford, some of my friends and I would discuss what the school would be like if it housed a prominent football program. Maybe it was the maturity of older age or the stunning realization that I wouldn’t be a professional athlete, but even at the time, I remember thinking that it would be horrible if Stanford bent its admissions standards, coaching pay grades, or academic reputation to make room in the school’s public image for a team that scored more touchdowns than its opponents. It didn’t even cross my mind that a school would ever cross its own morality to protect a football program.
Enter Penn State, Joe Paterno, and the Freeh Report:
In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university — Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley — repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse.
On the list of concerns that a human being has about the horrible Sandusky saga, the reputation of the non-human organization surrounding the crimes is pretty low. Legal and moral crimes were committed by many men against the victims and families - that’s very obviously the worst part about it. And those men should be blamed and held accountable.
When you dig further, this whole saga also starts to look like a commentary on the dangers of handing over the reins of a school’s identity to something as meaningless as a sports team. Would these men have been enabled and motivated in the same way if Penn State’s football program wasn’t the dominant identity of the school? After all, even after the report’s release, some terribly-misguided folks were still supporting Paterno’s legacy.
Luckily there are some Penn State folks asking those types of questions. Michael Weinreb, at Grantland, has a pained piece on this:
It is clear now that the most powerful leaders at my university perverted that cause, and if it takes a temporary shutdown or de-emphasis of the program to right that wrong, those of us whose primary concern is the integrity of this university we held dear will accept that…. The Grand Experiment is a failure, and the entire laboratory is contaminated, and there is no choice but to go back and start all over again.
It is enough to make a proud alumnus of Stanford and football fan wonder if the recent (amazing! unreal! Harbaugh! Andrew Luck!) prominence of the Stanford Football program is a good or bad thing for the school’s identity. Certainly the crimes at Penn State were first and foremost caused by morally-ugly individuals, but it would be foolhardy to believe that they all started that way and behaved that way independent of the football program’s reputation.
The success of the football program enabled it to dominate the identity of the school. And when that identity was threatened with embarrassment, the caretakers of that identity chose horribly. Could that happen in lesser or equal degrees at other schools? Absolutely.
I hope Stanford Football keeps playing and succeeding at its latest levels, but much more than that I hope the identity of the school never becomes dominated by a something as meaningless as football or sports.