Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State and the infinite sadness

This story from Penn State is a blood diamond. So many facets, so many different angles, all of them uncomfortable to think about.

There's the hold that big-time sports has on our culture. I say this as a fan: The games matter far too much to far too many. Coaches and stars are our secular gods. Nobody in the state of Pennsylvania was as loved or as powerful as Joe Paterno.

There's the idea of sins of omission. Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach now charged with molesting boys, is the worst villain here. But several people, including Paterno, could have done more to stop him, and didn't.

There's the part that's personal. Sportswriter Joe Posnanski, one of my best friends, has been at Penn State for the last few months, writing a book on Paterno. Now the work ahead of him is so different than he, or anyone else, could have imagined. (He tweeted this from the scene Wednesday night: "I saw a girl crying tonight. When I asked why she said: 'Because everybody lost.'")

But the longer I roll it around, the more this story keeps circling back to one thing: The impulse to protect institutions, even at the expense of people.

Our nature is to build grand things, and to be drawn to them. Giant banks hold our money, stadiums hold our passion, vast churches hold our mysteries. Part of life is the search for something bigger than ourselves, someplace where we fit. When we find that place -- a job, a team, a school -- we often defend it beyond all reason.

Now imagine if you had built one of those institutions. That's what Joe Paterno did at Penn State. He started as an assistant coach there in 1950 before becoming head coach in 1966. That's 61 years in one place, 45 years as the head man, creating a program known for both high academic standards and wins on the field. For decades, Penn State was the model of what college sports could do for its players and for a campus. Paterno did that.

It's easy to imagine that he would refuse to let anything ruin it.

We might never know what was in Paterno's mind, or the minds of all the other people who had information that Jerry Sandusky had molested a young boy in the locker-room showers. But two facts are daggers to their credibility. Not one of those adults called 911. And not one tried to find out who that boy was, and how to help him.

So often, this is where corruption starts. One mistake. One failure to follow up. One moment of fear that finding the whole truth, and telling it, would destroy this beautiful structure that so many believe in.

Good people do regrettable things all the time. You can rationalize almost anything when you believe there's something more important to protect. This is how police departments rot from the inside, and churches collapse, and banks end up bankrupt.

The thing is, those misguided people trying to save an institution end up being the ones who wreck it.

What if somebody had turned in Jerry Sandusky right away? It would've been a brief, ugly story with a short shelf life. But now Paterno is gone, and the university president has been fired, and people have to wonder what else Penn State might have covered up. Everything that took so long to build is wobbling at the beams.

And none of that is the worst of it.

The worst is this: All the sadness about Paterno, about Penn State, about all the students and alumni and fans who love the school, pales against the sadness of that 10-year-old boy in the shower. Not to mention all the other boys who were victims after the adults at Penn State knew what they knew, and did not do enough.

The story is not over. It will grow and change and we will see angles we hadn't thought of. But it seems to me we can come to one conclusion. No institution is worth what happened to those boys.