Throngs of students rioted in the streets in the wee hours. Their numbers and rage increased while cries of delirium punctuated with the tipping of a news van. Police officers used tear gas to control the crowd. What enraged the student population past its boiling point? Their football coach had been fired that night.
Joe Paterno, former head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions for more than 46 years, was dismissed amid disturbing allegations against the school’s football program. Longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, since retired, had recently been charged with 40 counts of child abuse.
The grand jury’s statement released six days prior to Paterno’s termination hit like the nails on a coffin for his career and the reputation of the program he loved. Pedophilia. Rape. Cover-ups. Negligence. Arrogance. These things have no excuse, yet hundreds of angry students seem to declare the opposite.
The man achieved things with football that simply had not been done before, but those achievements are simply rendered unimportant to the conversation when Sandusky’s victims’ pain is taken into account.
How could Paterno, simply by coaching a football team, have gained such reverence in students’ minds to acquit him of his failure to stop the monstrosities happening directly under his leadership? It was only through the unusual position he had taken in the school’s dynamics as living legend and unofficial mascot.
Being in a position of leadership in for 46 years led to his deification.
Sports figures like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth can easily rise to attain a larger-than-life standing in the eyes of their followers. For the most part, their idolization leads to little. It is only when it is combined with an actual position of leadership, a position where decisions need to be made and situations need to be dealt with, that this kind of idolatry can lead to serious trouble.
Few jobs combine these factors like a successful college coach does. In the spectacle of the high-profile entertainment that is college sports, the fact is that college coaches are there to lead young men and women who are trying to figure out the course their lives will take and despite any success coaches might achieve in leading their teams, these men and women are university employees like professors you see every day.
In a perfectly fair world, coaches would not be treated differently than any of their university-employed counterparts.
With the amount of money college athletics generates, as well as the high-profile nature of the job, fair treatment would be impossible. Allowing someone like Paterno to balloon to the point where his loss is considered an adequate reason to take to the streets and create the level of mayhem witnessed at Penn State, however, is much more avoidable.
It is a matter of keeping things in perspective. College sports have significance, but the gap between their actual and perceived importance can be skewed when someone is elevated in the way Paterno is.
The rioters were misguided; they were only responding in accordance to the mythical stature Paterno attained.
Daniel Grzywacz is a sophomore majoring in cinematic arts-critical studies. His column “Thoughts From the Quad” runs Wednesdays.