Monday, January 23, 2012

Monday's Musings on Sports - The Passing of Paterno

When I was growing up on Long Island there were not many options for college football. Hofstra and St John's had teams, but neither were very good. If you wanted to become a college football fan, you needed to look beyond the NYC metro area. My close friend Lonnie O became an Ohio State fan, for reasons that I cannot remember. When I was looking around, I decided to become a Penn State fan, largely because of the icon which was Joe Paterno.

Since players rarely spend more than two or three (or at most four) years in school, college football fans can't lock their affections onto a particular player. Most college coaches are as transient as their players. They may spend two or three years on a team, but soon the lure of the pros or a larger or more prestigious college program comes calling and the $$ are hard to resist. If a college coach does manage to stay for more than five years, he must produce or face the calls for firing by alumni who return for a game or two each year. These booster/donors root for their alma mater, not the players or coaches. As such, they owe little allegiance to the current coach or AD.

One of the few exceptions to the above was Joe Paterno. For those who did not attend a college with a Division I football program, its hard to understand the persona who was Joe Paterno. Nicknamed "Joe Pa", Paterno was always viewed as fatherly figure who managed to get the best out of his athletes. It never mattered that he dressed like it was still the 70s as the PSU football players also dressed in what could be kindly called "throwback" uniforms and had reputations to match. Traditionally, PSU graduated intelligent ballplayers to the NFL. For a time, Penn State was most well known for its linebackers, but at times they did send offensive players to the pros as well. Again, the constant was the lack of scandal or controversy, which most attributed to Joe Pa being at the helm.

And then came the scandal which hit in November. There is no way to sugar coat it and to his credit, Paterno did not try to make excuses. When he was interviewed last month (the first time that he was allowed to comment) he admitted that he did not know how to handle the accusations which were made against his (then) assistant coach. He passed the report up the pipeline to his athletic director and President and left it for them to act. While I would have liked him to have done more, its not hard to understand how a (then) 75 year old man would not know what to do with allegations of this kind against his assistant.

I do not write this post to comment on, or justify, Paterno's actions ten years ago or earlier this year. I am just struck by what happened after Paterno was ignominiously removed as head coach a few months ago. Although Paterno had a history of health problems, his passing came as a shock. A man who was well enough to stand and coach on the sidelines earlier this year, was diagnosed and succumbed to cancer inside of three months. But was it the cancer, or a broken heart due to the realization of what had transpired, which felled this icon.

The gemara in Avoda Zara tells a story of Elazar Ben Dordaya who sinned and was mocked by his paramour and told that he could never receive repentance. He asked the hills and mountains, the sun and moon, heaven and earth and the stars and constellations to pray for him, but was turned away by all. He then placed his head between his knees and cried until his soul departed.

I do not mean to equate the Elazar Ben Dordaya story with Joe Paterno, but the realization that one has made a major error with far reaching ramifications and the swift way both departed with broken hearts struck a chord with me. Feel free to comment with your thoughts...

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