Bigger Than Football

At first, I was surprised to learn that Bo Pelini thought yesterday’s game against Penn State should not have been played.

But now that I’ve read David Haugh’s Chicago Tribune op-ed on the game, it makes more sense to me.

To say this football game was revealing has nothing to do with either Penn State or Nebraska’s chances to win the Big Ten Conference title. A 3 1/2-hour event turned into a daylong sociological seminar on the power of coaches as entrenched as Paterno, and college football, in communities such as this one in Centre County built around the sport.

Haugh’s op-ed is about the danger of blind obedience and ugliness of mob mentality. He points out that some Penn State fans think “the media” brought JoePa’s house down, when that’s clearly not the case. He also reports on the actions of one man with a conscience, Penn State grad John Matko, who put tape over his Penn State hat and stood outside Beaver Stadium with a sign that read, “Put the abused kids first. Don’t be fooled, they all knew.” According to Haugh’s report, Matko was threatened several times by PSU fans for his dissenting point of view.

While the lack of perspective saddens me, I am glad the game was played. “The show must go on,” and there are lots of people in this — like the Penn State players — who would have been punished by a cancellation, even though they did nothing wrong. Yes, child abuse and the alleged cover up is outrageous and something needs to be done about it (and thankfully something is being done about it). But cancelling a football game, or the remainder of Penn State’s season, is not the answer.

Was the cover up a cold calculation meant to protect Penn State football, JoePa and the university? Probably, but the motivation to “protect the church” is only one factor. It’s also a natural human reaction to recoil from something so monstrous and repress it to the best of one’s ability. Of course that’s not the answer we’re looking for…the answer is to face the monster head on and slay him, but we all know that storybook ending is often rewritten in real life.

It’s easy to project how one might have handled things differently if confronted by the things Mike McQueary saw in 2002. And it’s also easy to say you would have intervened and maybe kicked the crap out of the vile offender. But I can see where McQueary was stunned and traumatized by what he saw. Whatever his first reaction, he needed to pull it together and call 9-1-1. He didn’t do that and he and will likely regret it for the rest of his life.

But back to Pelini and his desire to be an educator of young men first and a football coach second…it’s an interesting balance that a head coach has to strike between being a compassionate guy and a role model, while at the same time making his living as the guy who instills a killer instinct and an unrelenting will to win. I’ve been tough on Pelini at times this season and last, but on the whole, I’m a fan.