Playing football right now is grotesque—and sacrificing that one thing that is most important to Penn State’s collective identity would prove the university finally gets it, says Michael Tomasky. Plus, Nick Summers on the school's troubling culture of impunity.
On Saturday, the Nittany Lions will take the field up in State College. One hundred thousand people will be cheering them on—with no doubt redoubled fervor—for what in normal times would have been a massively important game against Nebraska. Penn State is 8-1 and ranked 12th. Nebraska is 7-2 and 19th. A big deal, in normal times. But now? The right thing for the Penn State board of trustees to do now is cancel the rest of the football season, forfeit the games, and refuse any bowl invitations.
It’s too late to cancel Saturday’s game, clearly. So fine. Let the seniors have their Senior Day; the last home game of the season, for most football teams, is the day to recognize seniors. But the next two games are on the road. And will be played during weeks when there’s every chance that this scandal only gets worse. If Penn State officials want to make the point, to their community and the whole country, that what’s going on is a helluva lot more important than football, there is no better way to make it than to forfeit the final two games.
How could I say this? Isn’t it time for the “healing” to begin? What better way to heal than to cheer the old team on to victory, right? Wrong. We are not yet remotely at the healing stage. That makes the playing of a football game not purgative but grotesque in the current context. To engage in those rituals at this time—rituals I love, by the way, and have participated in since I was about 8 years old and hope to participate in until I draw my last breath—is not to heal. It’s to forget; to force the horror into the background, to bury it in pageantry and team colors and marching bands and tailgate parties and boozed-up alumni taking comfort in ritual. There will be a time for that comfort and those rituals. But the Penn State board should not be permitting them just yet.
What the board should be doing right now is trying to send the message that what happened is utterly and wholly and universally intolerable. There might be various ways to do it. But there’s really only one that will hurt, that will fully and truly drive the point home. Does Penn State want to be one more ass-covering institution in a world of ass-covering institutions? Or does it want to say—as it has often said during the Paterno era—no; we are different. We are Penn State. That’s their chant, by the way. We are [clap, clap] PENN STATE! They should be the Penn State they have claimed to be. Cancel the season.
The other morning as I was driving in to work I was listening to the sports-talk radio station here in Washington. The Tony Kornheiser show. He was kibbitzing with his on-air crew about all this. They were talking about the horror of it all with proper outrage and perspective. Discussion turned to this Saturday’s game, and how tiny it now seemed. Kornheiser interjected: But they’re 8-1! Now, in fairness, he didn’t sound like he really meant it as a serious point. He was playing devil’s advocate, adopting the fan’s point of view. But everyone on his set groaned, and I groaned in my car. How puny and meaningless it sounded! Who cares now whether they’re 8-1 or 1-8, headed to the Rose Bowl or the toilet bowl? Allegedly, a child was raped, and others assaulted—oral sex performed on them, a grown man’s erect penis pressed against their 10-year-old bodies. And we have every reason to believe that people, important people, knew. And we’re supposed to act like it matters if they win out?
Canceling the season would anger and infuriate hundreds of thousands of people. It might even be mildly unfair to the athletes themselves, although that’s a secondary concern at most; we should begin discussions of what constitutes “fair” in this situation with what is alleged to have happened to those kids. The athletes will miss two games. Three, counting the bowl. They’ll be back next year, most of them. Life will go on. The leaders of that university have more to worry about than the players’ feelings. Canceling the season would make everyone understand: OK. I get it now. We can’t brush this under the rug. We must deal with this. This is big enough to cause all of us, even the completely innocent, some pain.
The university would be saying: We are willing to sacrifice that one thing that is most important to our collective identity to signal to the outside world that we take this as seriously as it deserves to be taken. And we are willing to sacrifice millions in revenue. After the people get over their anger and fury, they would know that their university had done something brave, the kind of thing no institution in America seems to do anymore. People would respect it. Respect is something Penn State rather lacks right now. I think if I really loved Penn State, I’d want that more than I’d want to be in a BCS game.