When power corrupts: Penn State struggles with tarnished legacy
Penn State awaits a new school year, and a fresh start, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Gene J. Puskar/AP/File
Welcome back after the off-season from hell.
PennÂ Stateâ€™sÂ torturous timeline, spanning from last November to last week, cast a pall over the sport that could have hardly been fathomed this time last year.
Jerry Sanduskyâ€™s pathetic mug shot, the Freeh Report, Joe Paternoâ€™s eradicated legacy and NCAA President Mark Emmertâ€™s recitation Monday of unprecedented sanctions have left a football nation dazed and confused.
The Aug. 30 opening bell canâ€™t get here soon enough as we eagerly anticipate the return to trivial pursuits. Before we move on, though, we reflect.
What happened here? What happens now?
The lasting take-away ofÂ PennÂ StateÂ is biblically obvious: The consolidation of power in the hands of a few, over time, is poisonous.
Lord Acton, the historian and moralist, opined in another century: â€śPower tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.â€ť
Actonâ€™s next line, not as often repeated, is â€śgreat men are almost always bad men.â€ť
Nowhere is it easier for power to corrupt than in the upstairs office of a powerful football coach. The thirst for victory, combined with money, combined with alma mater mania, has elevated conquering coaches to kings.
The reasonÂ PennÂ Stateâ€™sÂ insular circle thought they could conceal secrets and handle problems internally is because they always had.
Paternoâ€™s avuncular â€śJoePaâ€ť public persona, philanthropy and win-loss record provided cover for more ruthless, pragmatic, day-to-day operations.
â€śNo one program, no one person, no matter how popular, no matter how successful, can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution,â€ť Commissioner Mike Slive said at the Southeastern Conferenceâ€™s recent media days.
No one would disagree, yet some would also note a school in his king-maker conference, Alabama, practices the custom of erecting a statue of each coach who has won a national football championship.
A good rule of thumb is to never build a statue of anyone living, and rarely of anyone dead.
Someone recently suggested to Saban that the football coach at Alabama, dating to Bear Bryant, had potentially dangerous power.
â€śWell, you know, itâ€™s not true if thatâ€™s the perception,â€ť Saban said.
PennÂ StateÂ is a reminder, though, of why light needs to be shined into the dark corners of a democracy that loves tailgating.
Interestingly, the opposite is happening. Coaches with $5-million salaries have a virtual stranglehold over operations and players. Postgame locker rooms used to be open ; now they are closed. Player access to the media has become increasingly limited.
The narrative at most powerful programs is controlled, with puppet strings, by the head coach. Anyone think this will change?
For years, the NCAA operated in the catacombs, revealing about as much of itself as Hooverâ€™s FBI. The NCAA was also once ruled a monopoly by the Supreme Court, which is the reason it lost control of Division I football.
The NCAA this week become more dictatorial â€” they claim itâ€™s only temporary! â€” when the organizational body gave Emmert unprecedented power to expedite an unprecedented case. It then bypassed due process to move swiftly and harshly againstÂ PennÂ State.
Machiavelli would have applauded.
What exactly, though, hath the NCAA wrought? Time will decide whether it sufficiently crippledÂ PennÂ State, or mobilized it. Did it spare the school the â€śdeath penaltyâ€ť and a TV ban to protect its own fiduciary interests?
Football-crazed powers not killed by the NCAA tend to defy it. Miami and Alabama won national titles within a decade of so-called â€śpunitiveâ€ť sanctions. USC is poised to compete for a national title in the third year of major probation.
PennÂ StateÂ Coach Bill Oâ€™Brien, on a conference call this week, outlined a potential artery weakness in the NCAAâ€™s actions.
â€śThey let us play football, and let us be on TV,â€ť Oâ€™Brien said. â€śWe can play football in a beautiful stadium in front of passionate fans I understand we canâ€™t go to a bowl game, I really do. But how many bowl games are played in front of 108,000 fans? We play six or seven bowl games a year right here.â€ť
Because it balked at puttingÂ PennÂ StateÂ out of business, the NCAA is in the unique position of actually needing one of its member institutions to fail. It also set the bar for egregiousness lower than the booster payouts that led to Southern Methodistâ€™s â€śdeath penaltyâ€ť in 1987. The NCAA meted out toÂ PennÂ StateÂ one more year of probation than it gave Caltech.
What ifÂ PennÂ StateÂ doesnâ€™t fail? Are there unintended consequences we have not yet contemplated? Might one of those be the wholesale, unseemly poaching of Nittany Lions players?
The answers await us all.