What a price we pay in pursuit of the shallow glories awarded to us by simple games.
If a fan didn’t have enough reasons to be disillusioned, this week afforded perhaps the best argument ever for a sober re-evaluation of what has become an unhealthy national obsession with sports.
The love of the game, it seems, is dying, co-opted by the love of power, the love of money and the love of fame. Every other concern be damned, even the well-being of young children.
Such as it is today, in the midst of the shameful scandal at Penn State University that has claimed the careers of four top officials, including its beloved coach, national legend and community father figure.
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Joe Paterno succeeded on the field more than any other coach in college football, building a philosophy of excellence and honor. Yet, when faced with the biggest test of his moral character, he failed as a human being.
Who knows precisely why he or any of the other ousted Penn State executives didn’t do something — anything — to put a stop to the alleged behavior of Jerry Sandusky, the disgraced former assistant coach who apparently used his foundation for at-risk kids and unfettered access to university facilities and activities as a means to embark on an unobstructed spree of child molestation.
It’s a safe bet, though, that protecting the legacy of the university, its football program and its hallowed coach were all near the top of the list.
And that is an American shame.
In all honesty, though, we shouldn’t be surprised it’s come to this, as though we haven’t witnessed one example after another of supposedly right-thinking leaders losing their minds — and morals — in the chase for this championship or that trophy or this bowl game or that prized recruit.
Just this season, Cal Poly cut a fat check to volleyball coach Jon Stevenson to make him go away, after a litany of intimidation and harassment charges were brought against him by several of his players.
Why might Stevenson have behaved the way a university investigation claimed he did?
I’d guess at least in part because he wanted to win at all costs, which allowed him to justify probing into his players’ sex lives or making stupid comments about their looks or engaging in any of the other draconian behaviors attributed to him.
Cal Poly’s administrators eventually came to the conclusion that Stevenson had to go, although they took their sweet time doing it, waiting more than a year after the damning report was released. Disciplinary action, in fact, wasn’t meted out until a new athletic director arrived.
In both cases, though, winning — and by extension, glory — finally were subjugated to a larger cause, that is, the best interest of the university, its student athletes or even the community at large.
Yes, cases like Penn State’s surely can be tinged by legal motivations and some not-entirely-altruistic brand management, but at least here a better value judgment ruled the day over sports-team-above-all.
And frankly, that is a value judgment we hear far too infrequently these days — the best interest of the larger educational institution and the least powerful people it represents being placed above those of its coddled, lionized athletic culture.
It’s a value judgment we hear too infrequently in general when addressing the subject of sports. Something goes awry at the club soccer team and parents pitch a fit, forgetting that at the heart of the experience is the enjoyment of the kids.
High school football becomes such a big deal, cable TV turns out to televise it in HD, forgetting that these teenagers are here to learn life and team-building skills, not how to strut in the end zone.
Shoot, even we media folks run around singing the praises of our hometown athletes, while hardly speaking a peep about the accomplishments of the school choir.
Our priorities are out of whack.
Back in the early ’90s, when I was a student at Cal Poly, the fate of the football team was essentially put up to a vote during one fee-raising episode.
The football team survived, but many at the school would have been perfectly happy to see it disbanded if it meant saving funding for core educational programs, because Cal Poly’s reputation was built on its academic excellence far and above any trivial thing that happens on a field or court.
That emphasis remains in place today, even as the university sports teams continue to advance in nationwide stature. And I count us lucky for it.
We don’t need to be bigger than we are, and we don’t need to celebrate athletics any more than we already do.
On the contrary, we’d do well to cut that obsession down a notch or two, like the next time we have a choice between a high school sports program and a high school art class, we choose the art class for once.
Or the next time your kid needs to choose between studying for the test or practicing for the game, have them study for the test.
Or the next time we want to erect a statue at Cal Poly, it’s for Weird Al Yankovic or Burt Rutan, instead of Ozzie Smith.
Or just skip the statue altogether and put the money into the classroom.
If we’re going to chase glory, power and riches, that would be a better place to start. Email Joe Tarica at firstname.lastname@example.org.