“Mr. High School Sports” – We Aren’t (But We Still Could Be)
By Matt Popchock
All Dorian Johnson had to do was sign on the dotted line.
All the Belle Vernon teen had to do was put his John Hancock (or, Herbie Hancock, if you prefer) on that letter of intent, and he would “rockit” the rankings of Paul Chryst’s 2013 recruiting class.
A position of relative weakness for Pitt would have turned into a position of future strength. Negative tweets, message board posts, and Facebook comments everywhere wouldn’t have made it past the “send” button.
But there was just one problem…
Johnson’s family wasn’t sold yet.
That’s when State College came a-callin’.
After his official visit, the highly-touted offensive lineman made it official he would be a Nittany Lion instead next year. Why?
Based on my conversations with Post-Gazette reporter Paul Zeise, safety, as is often the case, was a major concern for the family of this student-athlete. The serenity of Penn State’s rural campus was attractive. The perceived hustle, bustle, and tussle in Oakland was not.
Suppose your son got a free ride to play football at Beaver Stadium for the next four years. Despite all you now know about the school, the program, and the insular, self-detrimental culture that tarnished their credibility, would you still feel comfortable sending him there? Some parents would.
In some ways, Pitt, in spite of its atmosphere of relative compliance during the time a nationally embarrassing scandal was brewing 200 miles away, will never be Penn State, and that is through no fault of Pitt’s.
Pitt has an urban campus, and there are certain stereotypes that come with an urban campus. The University of Cincinnati’s main campus is located in Clifton Heights, which always felt to me like a carbon copy of Oakland. During my four years there, sometimes things happened on and around campus that reinforced those stereotypes. So I fully understand this is something Pitt and other urban schools will always have to fight.
Furthermore, imagine you are one of the best players at your position in the entire country, let alone the state or the WPIAL. As a prospective student-athlete, what is more attractive to you? The sight of 100,000 Cro-Magnons in their rolled-up pant legs and white t-shirts bobbing, chanting, and screaming in unison every Saturday? Or the sight of 3,000 white-bread kids crooning “Sweet Caroline,” then leaving after the third quarter because they have class Thursday morning?
To some of these young men, that still matters. Can anyone blame them?
Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same, but some things at Penn State absolutely need to change. Hopefully we’ll see the beginnings of that change during the Bill O’Brien era (long may he reign…?).
O’Brien, on the recruiting trail, doesn’t seem to need as much help as one might have imagined, and that is to his credit. But for all his nobility, it would probably be a while, if I were a parent, before I felt comfortable buying little Johnny those black Nikes he wanted as a graduation present.
The “old boss” is gone. For that we should all be grateful. But between blacking out campus television when the Freeh Report was filed, keeping the Paterno statue erect, and offering no distinctive damage control when high-profile alumni went to the media and collectively ran off at the mouth, the “new boss” hasn’t necessarily scored a ton of points in the wipe-the-slate-clean department this past week.
Whether we want it to or not, the past is constantly influencing the present. For 14 years the school, including Joe Paterno, its most powerful figure, masked criminal activity that traumatized minor children…all for the glory of old State. Am I to assume this same school will remove the wrong leaders and replace them with the right ones? Am I to assume this school is competent enough to choose more credible men to lead my son out of the tunnel, give him inspirational speeches, and help monitor his well-being on and off the field?
With all due respect to the efforts of this new regime, including O’Brien, I’m not one to fully judge a leader until I’ve actually seen him or her lead for an extended period of time (what the hell, why don’t you just take away my fan card right now).
So what do I want to see before I send “Mr. High School Sports Junior” to don the blue and white?
I want every homage to Paterno removed from campus, particularly that statue. Since his downfall and Jerry Sandusky’s concurrent conviction, letting the statue stand has become tantamount to hanging a life-sized Confederate flag. Maybe, in another era, it was a beacon of good will, but now, it is a symbol of all the evil that existed and was tolerated within the university. I find it more offensive than any insult a PSU supporter could hurl at me for writing this.
Change the rules, change the routines, change the sponsors (here’s looking at you, Mr. Knight), change whatever will change the culture. Take a cue from the old George Carlin routine and change that blue and white to ultraviolet and flesh, for all I care. Just show a commitment to making a brand new bed, as opposed to simply changing the sheets.
In addition, I want one year of no football at Penn State, and I want the school to beat the NCAA to the punch in terms of enacting the death penalty. A quarter-century ago, SMU got that treatment for two seasons because Johnny All-American drove a 4×4 and wore a fur coat he shouldn’t have. In this case, kids were raped. Routinely. If anything, Penn State would be getting off easy.
Collateral damage, you say? Sorry, but the school brought that upon itself. Besides, collateral damage happens all the time in the real world, and quite frankly, we might be doing these young men a favor by teaching them early in life how to deal with it. Were I the father of a disgruntled student-athlete who didn’t want to deal with it, I would petition the NCAA to let him play for any school he wants for that academic year, no strings attached. If he stays, he stays. Otherwise, he’s welcome back in Happy Valley anytime.
During that period of gridiron abstinence, I want the school to take stock of all the money the football program made while criminal activity was taking place. I want it to put a matching amount into a pool, half of which goes to non-profits, half of which goes to help the university settle with the victims’ families.
Lost in the translation of the Freeh Report is the fact that, if you’re just another student looking for a decent education, Penn State is still a viable option, and it is still peopled by decent faculty who try to do the right thing. However, it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take loud actions, not loud words, before I am completely satisfied with the new age of integrity ushered in by the post-Paterno football program.
In the meantime, I’m hoping the next e-mails happened upon by CNN will read something like this:
Dear Messrs. Paterno/Millen/Harris,
You’re not helping.
David Joyner, Ph.D.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)