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Friday Night Excitement

My grandson, Adam Notestine, continuing a long tradition.

Fall is here. There is a nip in the air, trees are beginning to show tinges of red and orange, and that aroma in the air is brats sizzling on the grill at tailgate parties.

It has been a long time since I attended high school football games. A few things have changed with the times but the basic excitement of gladiator proportions still exists.

The sound of the band and the drums start the heart racing. The cheerleaders do their best to capitalize on this adrenalin rush with rhythmic stomps, thumps, and yells. Then the team runs on the field clad in their form fitting uniforms with lots of protective padding underneath and new state-of-the-art custom fit helmets. All sorts of protective measures have been taken to shield the player as he fights for his school and hometown’s honor.

The fans are packed into the stadium wearing a wide assortment of paraphernalia reflecting their team’s colors. They cheer and moan and groan depending upon their team’s success. Officials wearing black and white uniforms are positioned around the field to ensure a fair and safe game. However, the fans sometimes see their calls as more of an interference or nuisance and voice their opinions accordingly.

It is a grueling fight to the finish and we can only pray that all players escape the game with no serious injuries. But football has always been a violent sport. It dates back to the ancient Greek game of harpaston and is mentioned in classical Greek literature as a “very rough and brutal game.” The rules were very simple and similar to today’s game. Points were awarded when a player crossed a goal line either by kicking the ball, running across it with the ball, or throwing the ball across the line to another player.

In the United States the Native Americans played a game similar to football and it was reported that the settlers in Jamestown also played a similar game with inflated balls. Modern day football has its roots in rugby and soccer. It resulted from some major rule changes instituted by Walter Camp, considered the “Father of American Football”. Among those changes were the introduction of the line of scrimmage and down-and-distance rules.

I might be a bit different from most women. I love football and always have. I even understand it. Some of my earliest memories are of my father and uncle sitting in front of a small black and white TV screen yelling and screaming. I married a former player, coach and scout who takes his sport seriously. So much so that he never yells or screams at the TV and never cusses out the officials. However, I have seen him so disgusted that he says he is giving up on his Buckeyes—that is until the next game.

I live in the middle of Big 10 territory and the Ohio State Buckeyes. This area is rich in football history not only for the Buckeyes but Columbus was also the site of the first NFL headquarters. I frequently pass through Portsmouth, Ohio and go past an ancient, inconsequential looking concrete stadium; however, this was the home of the Portsmouth Spartans (which later became the Detroit Lions) and is the sight of the first professional night game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1930. Famed Jim Thorpe played here when the team was the Portsmouth Shoe-Steels. I also live a little over 100 miles from the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Yes, like so many other Americans I love football. It gives me a tingle up my spine to watch my grandson run onto the field ready for battle in this ancient sport. A sport steeped in tradition and history. A sport that creates more energy than a nuclear blast. A sport young boys dream about and old men remember fondly.

My grandson Adam at age 9 examining my nephew Andrew Thornburg’s Furman football jersey. I think that jersey would fit now.

 

The Gods of Football–Part II

My recent post ,Where do Penn State and the NCAA go from here?, stirred up a lot of controversy. My concern over this whole debacle, besides the obvious of molested children, is the fact that it continued because of the elevated stature of football on campus. Penn State is not the only university to hold the coaches and team in such high regard but is the most recent in the news. The Freeh Report stated the culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community is one of many contributing factors as to why Sandusky was allowed to continue his actions for so long.

When this story broke last year I saw similarities with all big time football schools and Penn State is not the only one to hold its football program in a culture of reverence. The same attitude of hero worship is what led to Ohio State’s downfall. These thoughts led me to write The Gods of Football.

Below are excerpts from The Gods of Football, posted Nov. 22, 2011, in which I analyze this very problem. As I re-read this piece it seems I was almost psychic in my predictions and analysis.

NOTE—the references to Ohio State, its coaches and players refer to what is known as Tattoo-Gate in which players exchanged autographs on school equipment in return for tattoos. This ultimately led to the firing of Coach Jim Tressell, benching of players for many games for their involvement, and strong penalties for the school including loss of all games played for2010-2011 season, and banishment from bowl games for the 2012-13 season plus other punishments. Temple Shoe refers to the nickname of the Ohio State Stadium commonly known as the horseshoe because of its unique shape.

 

The gods of football

….The lives of the eight young boys have been forever changed, their youth robbed of its innocence, and self-esteem and trust forever damaged (due to Jerry Sandusky). All of this happened at the sports altar in the temple of football. They were used as sacrificial offerings to appease the gods of greed and excess in the name of football. A large and prestigious university (Penn State) may come tumbling down because no one wanted to stand up to the great god of sports and his high priest, Joe Paterno. No one wanted to risk the wrath of the gods and alumni by going to authorities with the ugly truth. Those in charge of the temple—the administrators, coaches, police—all kept their silence.

Exposing the truth would have meant a possible loss of revenue and a black eye for the athletic department. By allowing the cover-up to continue for so long the black eye appears minor compared to the festering ugly wound eating away at the face of the university. And make no mistake, it was a cover-up….

It took the courage of one heroic mother to finally stand up to all the followers of the almighty sports gods and say nothing was as important as her son.

The worship of sports goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. They believed that their gods loved to see strong, fit and graceful young male bodies. Therefore, one way to gain favor from the gods was to exercise, eat right, and excel in athletic games. They even felt that a loss meant that the gods didn’t like you.  Athletic competition was tied to worship of the gods.

Even the word “stadium” has religious significance. It comes from the Greek word “stadion” which was the name of the place built to honor Zeus and was where athletic competitions were held. The legend says that when Heracles completed his twelve labors he built the Olympic stadium as an honor to Zeus. Following its completion, he walked in a straight line for 200 steps and called this distance a “stadion” which was later used as a unit of distance. The term “stadion” or “stade” was later applied to mean a short race or sprint measuring between 180 and 240 meters, or the length of the stadium.

Things haven’t changed much in today’s world. One of the most notable and profitable athletic companies is named after the goddess of strength, speed, and victory—Nike. Not to be outdone, Adida is marketing an athletic shoe that sweeps into wings at the ankle channeling the mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans in which Hermes and Mercury were said to have wings on their feet.

Outstanding athletes are still viewed as gods in a sort of hero worship. Ohio State will never forget but long suffer the name of Terrell Pryor. He was the beautiful muscular specimen of a quarterback god who was supposed to bring glory to the Temple Shoe. What he brought was greed and shame to the Shoe and its followers. He had risen so high on his pedestal that worshipers paid mucho money for the privilege of his autograph on temple equipment such as shoes, shoulder pads, etc.

Over the past several years the gods (coaches, star athletes, and entire teams) have felt protected behind the veil of worship and have been so empowered that they tempted the fates. However, purgatory and hell will eventually catch up and the golden touch of Midas will turn to rust. Terrell Pryor, high priest Coach Tressel, and other lesser gods were banned from the Temple Shoe—some forever and others for a prescribed period of time to do their penance. The same will happen to the worshipped and their flock in Happy Valley….

 Let the games begin again and continue forever—in a clean and honorable way worthy of the one true God. Let us never forget that no one person is bigger than the game, institution, or the temple of football itself. Even though we worship them as gods, they are mere mortals with all the human fragilities that come with it. Let us put the game in perspective and honor the competition, not the personalities involved. Honor the sport and do the right thing on the field and off—no matter the cost. God bless the victims and their families and let us pray no other innocent victims will be sacrificed at the altar of sports.

 

Where do Penn State and the NCAA go from here?

We haven’t heard the end of the story about Jerry Sandusky and Penn State Football, the worst scandal to ever hit sports. The fallout will continue for years to come and the only redeeming factor will be if we as a society learn from this fiasco.

The Freeh Report came out last week which strongly condemned Paterno and other top officials in the school’s administration for concealing Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children in order to avoid bad publicity for the university and the football program.  The Paterno family issued a statement vehemently disagreeing with the report and saying, “Mr. Freeh presented his opinions and interpretations as if they were absolute facts.” The Paterno family contends that the report is merely the opinions of one person. They say that they and their lawyers will conduct their own investigation of the scandal.

The Freeh Report

The Freeh Report is hardly the opinion of just one person. It was spearheaded by former FBI Director Louis Freeh in which he and the Special Investigative Counsel conducted over 430 interviews and analyzed over 3.5 million pieces of electronic data and documents. Sports fans, university officials and others may try to put their own spin on the report but nothing can erase the shocking findings stated in the very beginning of the report:

“The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims….there was no ‘attempt to investigate, to identify Victim 2, or to protect that child or any others from similar conduct except as related to preventing its re-occurrence on University property.’”

 

The report goes on to name those most senior leaders as four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University—President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley, and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno. The report condemns them by saying they failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.

What happened in plain English

Let’s not gloss over this statement. In everyday language a member of the university’s faculty was raping young boys on university grounds and at university events and the four in-the-know had known about it since at least 1998 when the first incident was reported to them. As you read through the Freeh Report the one recurring theme with the university officials was how were they going to handle this “humanely” for Sandusky? The university police even interviewed him in the Lasch Building so as not to put him “on the defensive.” In other words, they didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable or intimidated. Did anyone ever think about how the young victims were feeling?

After the ’98 incident Sandusky raped at least two more victims before being caught by student assistant McQueary while raping a third boy in the showers February 2001. How many others might there have been between those times that we don’t know about? Do those “top officials” named in the report understand they could have prevented additional attacks and preserved the innocence of other young boys?

A year after the ’98 incident Sandusky was allowed to retire “not as a child molester but as a valued member of the Penn State football legacy”. According to the Freeh Report this visibility at Penn State allowed him to “groom his victims”. The report says, “school leaders empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access to campus and to affiliate with the football program. These actions provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims.”

NCAA response—nothing off the table

Throughout this whole event the NCAA has been strangely quiet. The airwaves have been full of people speculating whether or not the NCAA will levy any punishments including the dreaded “death penalty”. Finally Tavis Smiley invited Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, to his PBS show to ask where they stand. Emmert’s answer was very revealing when he said “nothing is off the table.” That means they could be eligible for the death penalty or even worse—banishment from the NCAA. (See A Fate Worse Than Death http://www.athleticscholarships.net/2012/07/16/fate-worse-than-death.htm) . This means that Penn State would lose all rights and privileges of being a member of the NCAA which effectively means an indefinite death penalty for the entire athletic department.

Southern Methodist University (SMU) is the only school to have suffered the death penalty for its football program and some say it took 20 years for them to come back.

Following the Freeh Report NCAA Vice President of Communications Bob Williams issued a statement referring to four key questions outlined in a Nov. 17, 2011 letter to Penn State that still need to be answered pertaining to “compliance with institutional control and ethics policies.”

NCAA letter to Penn State Nov. 17, 2011

I have heard some armchair experts on sports-talk radio say the NCAA won’t do anything because it is out of the realm of their jurisdiction. However, Mark Emmert stated in his Nov. 17, 2011 letter to Penn State President Rodney Erickson:

“Under Article 2.4, the NCAA Constitution requires that “for intercollegiate athletics to promote the character development of participants, to enhance the integrity of higher education and to promote civility in society, student-athletes, coaches, and all others associated with these athletics programs and events should adhere to such fundamental values as respect, fairness, civility, honesty, and responsibility. These values should be manifest not only in athletics participation, but also in the broad spectrum of activities affecting the athletics program.

…it is clear that deceitful and dishonest behavior can be found to be unethical conduct. Surely, the spirit of this bylaw also constrains behavior that endangers young people…Bylaw 11.1.2.1 goes on to state that “it shall be the responsibility of an institution’s head coach to promote an atmosphere for compliance within the program….Under this same bylaw governing the conduct and employment of athletics personnel, it makes clear that “institutional staff members found in violation of NCAA regulations shall be subject to disciplinary or corrective action….

Lastly,

…Bylaw 19.01.2 affirmatively states that ‘individuals employed by or associated with member institutions for the administration, the conduct or the coaching of intercollegiate athletics are, in the final analysis, teachers of young people…their own moral values must be so certain and positive that those younger and more pliable will be influenced by a fine example.’”

The death penalty

In my opinion what happened at Penn State is the ultimate tragedy. It is much worse than Ohio State’s Tattoo-gate or any other scandal in which the NCAA has levied punishment. If they do not give Penn State the death penalty or an equivalent punishment then they will have lost their credibility and there is no hope for maintaining high moral grounds for college athletics in the future. Worse, the NCAA will be just as guilty as Penn State officials in turning a blind eye on the event.

What happened is not OK

Then we as a society and sports fans everywhere will not have learned from this horrible event. It is not OK to put coaches and outstanding athletes on pedestals and worship them as gods. It is not OK to allow athletics to become so powerful as to run the university. It is not OK to allow a crime to be overlooked because of the money its department is bringing into the institution. It is not OK for athletics to take precedence over academics. And finally, it is not OK to rape.