There is a man in my life who is 15 years younger than me.
He is my brother—and he is a kid who was raised in youth sports.
From an early age, Patrick’s care and tutelage was entrusted to coaches. Adult men worked with him one-on-one to develop his skills and grow his potential, taking him from a spindly kid “raising the roof” when he caught a pop fly in t-ball to a capable junior-college catcher.
He was ten once and I remember him so vividly. He was goofy, charming … with a sunny smile and the smell of the outdoors in his hair. Although he may have never been the star player, all his darling little-boy energy went into doing his best. He was naturally trusting, but there were moments, as there are in life, when that trust was betrayed. Maybe the coach’s son played while Patrick sat the bench, or a kid with more influential parents than ours made error after error, yet still stayed in the game. Maybe he thought he’d worked hard enough to earn a spot, but somehow didn’t get the call. Sometimes life just isn’t fair—we all learn that at some point.
But this was nothing, nothing, compared to the alleged violations of trust that occurred under the auspices of Penn State University, but as we all struggle to reconcile the disaster unfolding there, there is one thought that won’t leave my brain: One of those boys could have been our Patrick. Or could have been, and was, a boy just like Patrick.
Maybe his parents didn’t show up at every game, or struggled to manage multiple jobs, keep plates full and the family in shoes. Whatever the circumstances, we all, at some point, must trust another adult, alone, with our children; and there is an immense amount of faith involved. The men who coached and mentored Patrick were trusted members of our community, but so was Jerry Sandusky. He wasn’t a shadowy figure. When we learn that a man who lives in the public eye, surrounded by the very heroes that our boys rely on as role models, is actually a semi-well-known predator, every parent in the world must now be asking, “Who else?”
I feel, too, for the people of Penn State who have been dealt multiple blows, including the loss of their revered head coach. It’s hard to watch an idol fall, especially one as seemingly lovable and straight-up as Joe Paterno. But Paterno’s lack of follow-up on the molestation that was reported to him back in 2002 is inexplicable. I feel devastated and betrayed; I can’t even imagine what the folks in Happy Valley are going through. No one wanted to see Joe Pa go out like this, but it’s clearly time for all of us to change our minds about the man.
There is hardly a branch of society that didn’t fail those boys in Happy Valley. What do we owe them? What can we do for those who bravely came forward?
“Shut down the program!” some decry. “Gut it, destroy it, smash it to bits as a lesson for history.” It’s hard not to agree with the sentiment; my instincts fall in much the same category. But where does that leave those victimized kids? Without a star player to inspire them, without a mascot to wave to in the stands? I’m not saying it’s right—if we’ve learned anything, we’ve learned that dreamy-eyed hero worship will get us nowhere. But maybe, if we get started on the hard work of ensuring something like this never happens again, we can build something better, more worthy of the adoration and admiration it inspires.
I’m concerned by any reaction that could keep victims from coming forward, victims who don’t want to break up their families, or don’t want to hurt their teams. The lawyer of one victim revealed that the boy has been “torn apart” by what has happened to the Penn State football community. In order to save future victims, these young men risked the collapse of an institution they cherished. If we allow these institutions to crumble, what message does that send?
I’m certainly not saying that continuing to over-support and over-fund these programs is the proper course, but I can’t stop thinking about that distraught little boy, after all he’d been through, still so affected by the epic downfall of Joe Pa and the chaos in Happy Valley. To him, I say this is not your fault. Those men were not heroes, you are the hero. I would like to be able to tell him: As a result of your actions, state laws and university guidelines around the country—and likely the world—are improving. Penn State University will be a safer, better place, because of you.
For me, college football has never been as much about wins and losses or X’s and O’s, as it is about connection, conversation, loyalty and spirit. There is community here, and that makes it valuable. But with each disturbing new detail that emerges, it becomes more difficult to don our team colors for a game that seems to have lost (or maybe sold) its heart. Suddenly, it’s hard to participate in such a brutally unjust culture; one where billion-dollar paydays for both school and community, national prestige and fundraising opportunities can mean more than the health and well-being of children.
Perhaps something will come of Penn State that will help reignite our faith in the integrity of college sports. I will continue to hope that if any small good can come of something so horrendous, it is a reevaluation and restructuring of the soulless money machine college football seems to have become. Maybe then we can all start to feel okay about being football fans again.