Penn State: History vs. Legacy

*Photo courtesy of the AP

According to ESPN.com and the Associated Press, a picture of Jerry Sandusky’s face has been painted over on a mural on Penn State’s campus and replaced by an empty seat with a blue ribbon, representing child sexual abuse awareness.  Penn State quickly  distanced themselves from Sandusky since this story came into public view last November, but I think we all know it’s not going to be that easy.

I can’t think of another time that a single person has caused so much disgrace and disgust that all record of their name and likeness are removed from the institution.  There have been players that have had their names removed from the record books due to NCAA infractions, but that’s for taking money and breaking a few rules to give themselves an edge on the competition, not ruining the lives of countless children under the guise of charity (and who knows how many children that we just don’t know of yet).

Anyone who has known me for more than ten seconds knows that I am a Buffalo Bills fan.  I have pictures of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley (always one of my favorites), Frank Reich, and Andre Reed that were taken when my family visited their training camp in Fredonia, New York when I was a kid.  Those guys were my heroes growing up.  Former great players became idolized by extension like Cookie Gilchrist, Jack Kemp, and of course, OJ Simpson.

My memories of OJ were of him as a broadcaster and analyst on the NFL on NBC pregame show and from the Naked Gun series.  Everybody loved OJ, and what’s not to love?  He was funny, personable, knowledgeable, and most of all he usually disagreed with Mike Ditka whenever he was dogging the Bills on the NBC pregame show.  This bigger than life personality was the face of the Buffalo Bills franchise.

And then June 12th, 1994 came along.

I remember sitting with my family, eating birthday cake (my brother’s fifteenth birthday), and seeing on the news that OJ Simpson’s wife and her boyfriend were stabbed to death, and that OJ was a “person of interest”.  Five days later, we watched the “White Bronco Chase” live on TV, and from that point on, it looked like OJ Simpson murdered two people in his home.  Every night for the next sixteen months, the news was centered around the OJ Simpson trial, and the stories were always prefaced with “former Buffalo Bills running back OJ Simpson”.  The Bills were on the non-sports news every night, but not in the way you want your team to be featured.

It was embarrassing to have your team’s only Hall-of-Famer facing a double murder charge, and to have him look to be so incredibly guilty in a circus of a legal process and trial that took over a year to complete.  The jury reaching a verdict was even announced at halftime of a Monday Night Football game when the Bills were playing the Browns (the Bills won 22-19 against the Bill Belichick-coached Browns in a really ugly game).

Prior to the trial and acquittal, whenever the Bills were playing, they would show highlights of that matchup in decades past with a monologue by the announcers in the background.  OJ was always featured in those pregame intros because he was the most famous, exciting, and recognizable face the Bills ever had.  After the arrest and trial, those introductions suddenly disappeared.  Almost an entire decade of Bills history was swept under the rug, nullified, and invalidated.  There was a great sense of shame that the man who provided so many memories and was such a monumental piece of the franchise was now a total embarrassment to be associated with.

It took a long time, but now it isn’t taboo to discuss OJ’s football-playing days.  His name is still on the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame.  The NFL Films: History of the Buffalo Bills DVD even dedicated a fairly large chunk of time to OJ and his contributions to the Bills.  He has a feature on the Full Color Football: The History of the AFL on Showtime even though he only played one uneventful year while the Bills were still in the AFL (1969).  The only reason why Bills fans are able to separate OJ from his alleged crimes is because OJ’s alleged crimes had nothing to do with the Buffalo Bills.

Jerry Sandusky’s crimes have everything to do with Penn State University.

Every time you think of anything Penn State football has accomplished in the last third of a century, every great moment, every bowl victory, every iconic image, you’re going to know that Jerry Sandusky was a big part of it.  I was watching the 1987 Fiesta Bowl the other day.  That game is famous for the Miami Hurricanes’ players showing up to Phoenix wearing fatigues, but it is also well known for the brilliant defensive game that Penn State played, forcing five Vinny Testaverde interceptions and seven turnovers total from the great Miami offense that was overrun with future pros.  Throughout the game, as it was becoming apparent that Miami was frustrated and confused by the Penn State defense, the television announcers for the game (Charlie Jones, Bob Griese, and Jimmy Cefalo) kept making reference to the brilliant defensive game plan implemented by Joe Paterno.  Most football people know that the coordinators and the assistants have much more to do with the detail work of a team’s preparation for the game than the head coach, which means that the announcers were praising Jerry Sandusky’s work as defensive coordinator by extension.

In the coming years, it’s going to be very hard for Penn State fans to look at Penn State football’s past with the sense of admiration that they had before November 2011.  The university and didn’t commit these crimes with their own hands, but it appears as if they spent a good amount of time and energy enabling them , and then covering them up repeatedly.  How do you not become cynical after that?  It will be interesting to see how many flashbacks of great moments the networks broadcasting Penn State games will go to during commercial breaks just because it’s impossible to separate anything having to do with Penn State football and Joe Paterno from the events that have come to light over the last eight months. Talking about Penn State football and Joe Paterno without acknowledging these crimes is like trying to write a biography of Nixon while leaving out Watergate (Don’t get me wrong; Nixon did a lot of great things as President, but Watergate and Nixon are inseparable).  This was not Woody Hayes punching an opposing player after an interception that lost a bowl game, or SMU’s pay-for-play in the 1980’s, or West Point’s “Honor Code” scandal of 1950.  This was the university failing at all levels to take action over a prominent figure on campus and in the community, Jerry Sandusky, sexually abusing children.

Unfortunately, Sandusky’s conviction is not going to be the end of this sad story, and the misery inflicted by him on his victims does not have an end.  If there is anything at all positive that will come out of this, and you really have to stretch to find a bright side to all of these events, it is that every university president, coach (of any sport), booster, professor, athletic director, and board member will receive the message that they are not immune, above the law, or free of accountability due to their reputation or stature in the university and the community.

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2 Responses to Penn State: History vs. Legacy

  1. Good post. And I think you make a very good point with the OJ comparison. Not once did I connect the murderer OJ Simpson to the Buffalo Bills.

    But this? This was swept under the rug in order to protect the football legacy. It hurts the heart to know people value a reputation far more than they do children.

  2. TaiwanMike says:

    I didn’t grow up in Buffalo, yet I’m a Bills fan, so I had to hear about OJ every day in school. As far as the reputation being valued over children, Paterno’s reputation probably isn’t going to mean a whole lot anymore after this is all said and done.

I do appreciate other viewpoints, so please comment

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