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On Paterno, Penn State: College sports need a culture shift

Maureen Dowd began her November 8 column talking about her nephew:

My nephew Anthony, 10, is the proud owner of Penn State shorts, underwear, socks, jerseys, sweatshirts and plastic football players.

The thrill of his young life was seeing the Nittany Lions beat Indiana at FedEx Field last year.

What is so twisted about all of this, Dowd tells us, is that the football program Anthony idolizes has allegedly allowed chronic sexual assault of boys his age since 2002. The charge is that for over a decade, Penn State leaders, including head football coach Joe Paterno, deliberately sat on evidence of pederasty. Why? Presumably to avoid any controversy that would damage the forward progress of both Paterno’s very-winning record and the inflow of funds into Penn State’s flush athletic coffers.

But how do you explain this to a child? What is Penn State to Anthony, at his age, if not Joe Paterno and the thrill of watching the school’s athletics?

The real problem, it seems to me, is the unquestioned centrality of athletics to the identity of the university and to many of the students in it. It’s a mindset that colors our views from a young age. Like Anthony, some of our earliest fidelities are to sports teams.

Seeing the reaction of students to Paterno’s dismissal the night of November 9, it’s clear that for many, those fidelities die hard. Such was the tenor of student rallies at Paterno’s home and the administration building. When the Penn State Board of Trustees responded by firing both the coach and university president Graham Spanier, students took to the streets screaming “We want Joe back.”

To make college athletics do better, we’re clearly going to have to do better ourselves.

My university — UNC Chapel Hill — dealt with its own athletic scandal last year. Thankfully, it didn’t involve abuse or assault. It did involve the football program tarnishing the values and reputation of our institution through a number of academic and sports agent-related improprieties.

It was in a climate of strong support for then-head football coach Butch Davis that the editorial board of The Daily Tar Heel, which I led, published one of the early calls for Davis to be fired. This was October 3, 2010. We believed Davis’ leadership had failed. His lack of oversight had soiled the values of our university. The solution was clear to us. Yet the administration and the citizens of North Carolina faithfully stood behind its athletic program, even as the university’s reputation was pilloried.

We weren’t vindicated until this past summer, when Chancellor Holden Thorp finally fired Davis, shortly followed by the resignation of athletic director Dick Baddour. And while by this time the fans had finally come around to supporting the firing of Davis, there remained an angry faction who faulted the treachery of Chancellor Thorp for terminating “the coach of the people.” Because undermining values of honesty and academic integrity at a cherished university is, after all, good for “the people.”

If there is a silver lining for Penn State, it is that the egregious nature of the current allegations seems to be precipitating swifter action. Real lives were hurt, and clear evidence seems to implicate the coach. To be sure, the Penn State Board of Trustees did a service to everyone for making the moral decision. I hope my own university leaders are watching.

I believe college sports have a lot of positive benefits. I believe that athleticism and competition can be enriching in the life of the university. But I am increasingly convinced that the institution of collegiate athletics in America is a monolithic cash nexus that is poisonous for both fans and participants.

The nature of the current scandal has thrown the worst of college sports into stark relief. It’s not pretty. What happened at Penn State will be legendary. But it will not be the last college sports scandal. It won’t be the last in which coaches have the gall to try to salvage themselves rather than resign in shame. And, sadly, it won’t be the last where students take to the street to support a man who, besides having a winning record, has seemingly lost all moral direction.

So what’s the way forward? How do we make sure that kids like Dowd’s nephew Anthony don’t grow up to be one of the street protesters at Penn State tonight? How do we make him what a university student should be: critical, reasoned and moral?

I’m talking about a culture-shift. But change has got to start somewhere, folks. As long as there are people willing to take to the streets to defend the Joe Paternos of the world, there will be Joe Paternos to meet them out there and thank them for supporting their repulsive behavior.

Cameron Parker is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to The College Fix.

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