Bill Lyon: Penn St. story a cautionary tale for us all

Posted: July 30, 2012

So now what for Penn State? What rises now from the rubble and the ashes of the Valley Not-So-Happy? Now that the poachers and carrion eaters have had their fill picking through possible defectors . . . now that arrangements are being made for writing the first of $60 million worth of penal checks . . . now that the NCAA, in a shameful display of bullying arrogance, has seen fit to punish the innocents for the failures of the guilty . . . now that the statue that caused such bitter contention has been spirited away to some secret resting place . . . and now that 111 victories have been expunged from the record books just like poof! that . . . well, now what for Penn State?

For now, they suffer still in the throes of a debilitating emotional hangover. This isn't going away any time soon. The days of Camelot and Happily-Ever-Aftering are shrouded in the mists and they will be a long time reappearing.

So how, then, do they cope?

There is no choice, really, other than resignation and acceptance, not when we learn that the sanctions visited on them could have been double; in fact, a group of presidents were all-in for a four-year death penalty. And had Penn State not accepted without whimper or protest the NCAA sanctions, it would have been hit with a four-year death penalty. Everywhere they turned, it seemed, there was a hammer raised and ready. So as they say on the football field, just bow your neck, hunker down, and do the time.

Well, there is something salvageable in all of this, and it showed up last week when an estimated 30 football players lined up in a bracing show of loyalty, unity, and defiance. They are the ones who got ground up in the misguided wheels of justice, having no connection with past sins but penalized for them anyway. But they have brought a saving grace - they are taking exactly the right approach, treating this not as punishment but as opportunity. They pledged to stay.

Led by Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti, they spoke forcefully about creating their own legacy, a stance heartily endorsed by coach Bill O'Brien, who wanted, and got, the chance to play and to do so on TV. Fact is, the Nittany Lions are believed to have a good team, good enough to post a winning record, which would qualify them for a bowl - oops. They will also be playing with a rally-round purpose and commitment, the sort of emotional spurs that carry meaning and motivation in football.

O'Brien's pitch is that, for all that they will be deprived, they will still come away, for the short term anyway, with what looks like a football, feels like a football, kicks like a football.

So the caravans of SUVs will circle, illuminated by the campfires of Nittany Nation, and they will stuff the stadium full, 108,000 of them, and, O'Brien asks, what bowl draws 108,000? Like a good lawyer, he doesn't ask a question he doesn't know the answer to.

So then, on the first day in September, Penn State will welcome Ohio University. Not Ohio State, which just happens to have a laundry hamper full of problems its own self at the moment.

And for this year, and the next, maybe a third, the Nittany Lions should do well enough. It's down the road, when the recruiting bans have eaten into the depth chart, that the scramble will be on.

Finally, there is a cautionary tale that must be told in this tragedy, a lesson hard learned and, oh my yes, hard earned. And that is for those in the media who not only allowed themselves to be captivated by the legend of Happy Valley but contributed to the lionizing of Joe Paterno and the myth of a modern Camelot. In this, I was as guilty as some, more so than many, and have no one to blame but myself.

The lesson is to be wary and judicious when erecting pedestals. Reporting 101: Gather the facts, check them, double-check them, have a checker check your checker. Logic 101: If a thing, or a person, is too good to be true, chances are it probably is.

I started writing about Joseph Vincent Paterno in the late summer of 1972, and was enchanted almost immediately. We shared a common hero: The Man From La Mancha. It was the time of The Grand Experiment, which seemed a noble cause and appealed to the idealism in me. In theory, it still is. In reality, well, those windmills hit back.

Forty years ago, a newcomer asking how to get from Philadelphia to State College was told: "Go to Harrisburg, take a right and swing through the trees for 90 miles."

The road was impossibly narrow and featured one - one - red light. The school was isolated and insulated, and media access was virtually nonexistent, so few knew what went on, which, as it would turn out, would represent the first cracks in the pedestal.

Joe Paterno was the last person, the absolute very last, I would have suspected, and even then I was hoping there had been a mistake somewhere.

I wanted Camelot restored again.

I wanted there to be Happily-Ever-Aftering again.

Alas, only in fairy tales.

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