This was written by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who was president of George Washington University from 1988 to 2007 and now holds an endowed chair in the university’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. Before moving to GWU, he was president of the University of Hartford and an administrator at Boston University.
By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
The tragedy that will forever be known as “that episode at Penn State,” has all the markings of a wrenching Greek drama: a powerful father figure — the coach; the people to whom he reports — deans, athletics staff, vice presidents and the president; those who adore or fear him – present and former players, alumni, fans, staff and the wider community; the protectors — just about everybody; the chorus — the press and politicians; and the most important players of all, the wounded innocent — the children.
As in most plays, not all the parts are given equal time on stage and the central figure around which everything else revolves need not be a larger than life character. In this case, while the spotlight is currently on the coach and the university president (both of whom have been fired), the focus of the drama must remain on the children — the unnamed, faceless, young, vulnerable, marred for life children — and it is vitally important that we never lose sight of that fact. The actions of adults — some active, others passive — brought about malicious harm to children.
Athletics play a particularly strong role in America’s life, often as a form of vicarious recreation. Fans passionately cheer for the hometown team, jeer their rivals and opponents, and, sometimes, in the extreme, stake their happiness on the win-loss record of people they have rarely met. For many communities, “the team” and by extension “the coach” – are local heroes.
Penn State’s social life, for more years than most undergraduates can remember, has revolved around the career of Joe Paterno. His record of wins became the university’s great success; his persona became the lifeblood of the campus. That is what makes the ending of this story the fodder of Greek drama, for the higher up the pedestal, the more the chorus cries out in despair.
But it is vitally important that however one feels about the coach’s dismissal or the president’s removal from office, the children remain the most important focus of this story.
It is equally important to remind ourselves that however long, detailed, specific and graphic are the contents of the 26-page indictment, it is still only that — an indictment --a statement of charges and accusations of serious crimes allegedly perpetrated by one (some) and known about by others. No one has been tried and convicted.
That the students at Penn State rallied in order to “save” their coach, and did not instead gather at a candle-lighting vigil for the children, shows how the fate of the football team has taken on a larger-than-life and perhaps even misappropriate role in their lives. No matter how much one enjoys going to a football game, or having a record-breaking season, that is not what is at stake here.
Camaraderie binds those who play sports, just like it unites people in the military, and within both there exists a chain of command and loyalty that shapes the support and spirit of those who train, practice, play or fight for and with each other. To succeed, each player or soldier must meld a part of his independence into a new whole. They protect each other — on and off the field. And it appears that at Penn State, few wanted to jeopardize “the team” and thereby they allowed the actions of a rogue person to continue rather than call attention to and possibly harm – in reputation or even stronger — the legend of Penn State. And to be repetitive here — it was done at the expense of children.
What happens next will take several paths. The courts will do whatever is necessary legally for both criminal and civil acts. The university must deal with what occurred out of the locker room — in the hush of administrative offices up and down the corridors of campus. No doubt we will learn more over the next several weeks: additional victims will come forth; more data about the acts of the athletic department’s support staff; more cries for “justice” of all forms and shapes.
It is time to put collegiate sports back into a normative focus. As the NCAA struggles to reinvent itself, it should take a hard look at what happens to the focus of campuses — from trustees, presidents, alumni and students — when schools earn $60+ million a year because of what happens on a football field or basketball court. Yes, education involves the mind and the body, but the torso has become grotesquely out of proportion.
We believe in linking thought to action, to behavior. We have made intercollegiate athletics a god or totem even at schools that don’t make money from football, which is in fact most of them. We chase false gods and market them and exploit athletes. Our students and student athletes are our children too. We ought to be taking care of them. A sound mind in a sound body.
Correction: A previous version misstaked Trachtenberg’s tenure at George Washington University. He became presidentin 1988, not 1998.
Follow The Answer Sheet every day by bookmarking http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page. Bookmark it!