The NCAA has sacked Penn State's football program, throwing it for a serious loss. I think it might be the best thing to happen to the school in years.
Until recently, amid the reams of hagiographies written about Paterno and "Linebacker U," it's been easy to think that the university has been a solid home for the student athlete.
I attended Penn State in the 80s, when the football program was arguably at its finest. What bothered me, and continued to embarrass me over the years as an alumnus, was that at Penn State, education never felt like the most important asset. Not that I'm football adverse. I grew up in Pittsburgh, I played football, and I continue to be a massive fan.
But at PSU, I thought that the devout reverence people had for the football program and its "student athletes" was way out of bounds.
It was widely accepted, for example, that players would be given a free pass. They were coddled in classes known for lenient grades. There were whole courses designed for no-show athletes (like a geology class nicknamed "Rocks for Jocks") run by colluding professors.
In Happy Valley, 320 lb linemen were considered too big to fail. As long as these behemoths were willing to block for the QB, the administration (and Paterno) would take care of these guys' blind sides too. The special treatment wasn't even a dirty secret. We all knew that football players would get the best housing, be shepherded out of most types of problems, and even eat better than the rest of us. I don't find it surprising in the least that wrongdoings -- even horrible ones -- were hidden in order to protect the football program.
Not that life at Penn State, for me, was unpleasant or unproductive. On the contrary, I loved my first foray into adulthood. I found my time there both eye opening and transformative. I went to school hoping to play baseball and study business. Along the way, I discovered art and became a filmmaker. I've since enjoyed a long and successful career.
But even before the Sandusky incident, I haven't always been proud of my school. I guess it's because of the awkward shadow that football and Paterno cast over the place; a shadow that, ironically, because of the NCAA sanctions and the removal of Paterno's statue, may finally lift.
Last month, after the Sandusky trial ended, I felt compelled to take my wife and kids to Penn State for a visit. I toured them around the leafy, impressive campus. I showed them the historic Pattee Library, where I loved to go and study. We passed Schwab Auditorium, where I took my first film class. I pointed out the awesome array of buildings, catering to nearly every intellectual pursuit.
As we finished the tour, I realized what has always bothered me about Penn State. I went to school for an education, not to join a club or a cult. Now that the football program has been cut down to size, PSU finally has a chance to be known for its brains, and not just its brawn. As an alum, that's something I'd really be proud of.
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