The game of football doesn't need us to cover for the mistakes of its heroes. It only needs us to love it for what it is. Football will outlast even Joe Paterno.
Deep down, I get it, at least a little bit. If your belief in something, or someone, is strong enough, you can, and will, fit the facts around your own deeply engrained narrative. For a good portion of the students expressing outrage over Joe Paterno's firing or impersonating reporters in the board of trustees' press conference (please tell me those were students and fans, and not actual reporters), Joe Paterno has been an infallible human being, not only since they were born, but since their parents were born. When you are raised with a truth that strong, that inherent, you can apparently convince yourself that Paterno did the right thing by simply passing along an allegation and moving on with his life, and that his firing was due to media injustice, or overreaction, or temporary outrage and bloodlust.
I know how this thought process comes about. But I also know that one day, probably soon, the outraged students and protesters will begin to understand that the trustees' action was an absolute necessity, that the benefits to allowing Joe Paterno to coach four or five more football games (giving a man who has represented Penn State for 60 years what you feel is his proper send-off) were drastically outweighed by the potential downside (allowing a man who, at the very least, did not properly pursue justice for child molestation to represent your university for even one more second).
Are all the facts in? No. Were enough in to realize what had to be done? Absolutely. And they will get that one day. Joe Paterno has received his proper send-off.
The thought of what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did to a growing number of young boys fills me with rage. The fact that he was quite possibly protected because he was once a good football coach makes me sad. In the end, we are just talking about football. In the 142 years and four days since Rutgers and Princeton gathered on a field to knock each other silly, this game we follow -- this game we adore -- has become an incredible part of our general makeup. It has thrived, and it is hard to envision a future scenario in which it isn't thriving. It doesn't need our protection, but every time we attempt to protect it, we weaken it. We should get rid of the bad actors, the bad blood, the moment we know they exist. Preserving it does no one any favors. Not the coaching profession, not the fans, and especially not the innocent children likely still haunted by Sandusky's positively disgusting actions.
We will hopefully continue to hear more from Paterno and other Penn State higher-ups regarding why they didn't act fully on the eye-witness accounts to Sandusky molesting a young boy within the Penn State athletic facilities, three years after he oddly retired and four years after he was first accused of wrongdoing. We will hopefully continue to receive explanations for why Sandusky was still allowed, basically, full access to said facilities almost a decade later. As Missouri coach Gary Pinkel put it yesterday, "I just know Joe Paterno. He’s one of my heroes in coaching. He is a good man. Why he didn’t do more, I don’t know. Some day he might explain it."
For all we know, Paterno might be able to come up with a sufficient explanation for why, after passing word of Sandusky's suspicious activities up the chain of command, he failed to attempt any sort of reasonable follow-up; the odds aren't good, but technically it could happen. Similarly, perhaps the now-former athletic director can explain how word of this activity never reached the police department. Perhaps erstwhile Paterno assistant Mike McQueary can explain why he didn't choose to pursue any action on his own despite witnessing Sandusky's act with his own eyes. And the now-former university president can explain why he thought it was a good idea to give "unconditional" support to Paterno and company a few days ago, despite the subject matter and evidence at hand, and despite the fact that a grand jury has been investigating Sandusky for an extended period of time (and, therefore, it is not like any of these allegations came out of left field).
No matter if, how and when we get answers, however, we are currently left to assume that all of the actions took place (or did not take place) for fear of football.
Paterno passed the word along, then evidently just quietly hoped the matter would take care of itself, and he wouldn't have to do anything publicly to jeopardize his legacy. And it is easy to assume that now-former athletic director Tim Curley, former university vice president Gary Schultz and former university president Graham Spanier took their (in)actions because you lose your job if you go against the football program.
As one of the probably hundreds of thousands of people in this country who can claim to have their bills paid by the game of football, this angers me. As did Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee's "I hope [Jim Tressel] doesn't fire me" joke from this spring. As do the hundreds of other examples of university officials who fail to do what is right for the university they represent, simply because they are afraid of public outrage, afraid of losing their jobs because of the game of football. Football is only as strong as the rules -- both rules of the game and of human decency -- that oversee it, and when the checks and balances break down, reputations get sullied, and the game we think we are protecting takes a significant hit.
This is the game of Saturday's America. Of Glenn Davis. Of Keith Jackson. And the other Keith Jackson. Of the Stanford Thunderchickens and LSU's Chinese Bandits. Of mascot-on-mascot violence. Of the Little Brown Jug, and the Keg of Nails, and the Old Oaken Bucket, and Paul Bunyon's Axe. Of Death Valley. And the other Death Valley. It doesn't need our help. It is a monument of its own at this point; monuments begin to show cracks after a while, and that is okay. We don't need to pretend the cracks do not exist. When bad actors are involved, they should be purged, not protected. In the end, failing to act does more damage and creates more cracks.
This game does not need a facade of greatness -- it is great. But the weakness of some in charge of it brings about weakness in all of it. This sport can stand on its own. But we have to let it.