Sunday, January 22, 2012

Paterno's legacy from the perspective of a former football player

The death of Joe Paterno, longtime Penn State head football coach, would have been mourned with appropriately solemn reverence had it not been for the scandal that brought him down. Some have already lionized him anyway, this in the face of evidence that Paterno completely mishandled allegations of child sexual abuse. The conflicting tone evident in the announcements of his death reveals much. In particular, it shows how eager, even desperate we as a society are to be entertained and how attached we are to those who provide that entertainment. That many will always overlook the negligence of one legendary coach shows the priority we assign to sports.

I grew up in Alabama, where college football is a cultural institution. Grown men obsess about the sprained ankles and yards-per-carry of nineteen-year-old young men. Overgrown teenagers offered scholarships are treated like royalty for the whole of their time to wear the uniform. Although more and more revenue saturates the college game, its basic function is often a distraction from dull routine. A still largely working class and poor state eagerly embraces a break from a life spent toiling away in an automobile plant or a paper mill.  

I can’t remember a time during the fall on Saturday afternoons without a game blaring on the television. From a young age, I wanted to be on the field of play myself. In time, I grew old enough to do that very thing. Fortunately, I inherited athletic ability from my father. I began playing at age ten, showing a natural inclination towards the unglamorous world of the offensive line. A guard, I was fast enough to cut off linebackers from making a tackle, but big enough to avoid being run over.

Like many of my teammates, I tolerated the practices and lived for the games. My recollections of those contests are blurry and often unmemorable. Games proceed at such a fast pace, the laws of time do not apply. A play begins and is over within a minute. One picks oneself up off the ground and trots backs into the huddle, over and over again. On the front line, victory and defeat is transitory. One play’s triumph can quickly become a tragedy with the next snap of the ball. For an offensive lineman, one lives in obscurity until quarterbacks are sacked or running backs earn negative yardage. 

After a time, however, even the thrill of the game could not make up for my reservations. Constant crude remarks made towards women made me feel embarrassed. I had little to nothing in common with most of my teammates, who didn’t value academics and seemingly lived to hunt deer on weekends.  After struggling through an interminably long spring practice, I walked away from everything. No one could understand why. It was incomprehensible to them why a starter would quit the team.

Had I continued to suit up on Friday nights, I would have reserved my own spot on a college roster. Even so, I have no regrets. Though I was told for years to feel special because I was a football player, I never felt particularly privileged. What separated me from other students was a vigorous regimen of physical exertion and abject terror. I was put through high-impact, grueling exercise and treated a little like a Marine in basic training. Today, I sometimes miss being in great shape, but never pine away for the volume and proximity of a coach’s verbal directions. When I was a player, I lived in a very deliberately fashioned cocoon during the season and for most of the year.   

This is the life of the football player. Discipline and focus are essential components. However, it is easy to see how this world unto itself grows insular and resistant to change. Joe Paterno only wanted to be a football coach, not a crime reporter. However, he still had an obligation to show the same authority and decisiveness he displayed on the gridiron. Football may be an alternate universe of a sort, but it does not and should not exist in isolation to the rest of the world. Even in death, Paterno should not be absolved fully of responsibility. He could have stopped the behavior of a sex offender, not merely the offense of next week’s opponent.        

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