April 24, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks athletic director Jeff Long listens during a press conference to announce the hiring of John L. Smith as head football coach at the Broyles Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Beth Hall-US PRESSWIRE
At some point on Thursday, I found myself thinking about Jeff Long.
It's an interesting contrast, when you think about it, between the Arkansas athletics director and the institutional leadership of Penn State. In one case, you had a coach fired following a personal indiscretion and a series of lies to the university. In the other case, you had a coach that convinced the administration to join him in covering up horrendous crimes and shattered lives so that he and one of his trusted lieutenants could escape the criticism they deserved.
I remembered how lonely Jeff Long looked back in April, as he stood in front of the press and told them that he was firing a wildly popular head coach who had convinced Arkansas fans that they weren't that far away from their team once again being thought of as a perennial national title contender. And I remembered, as I looked through a couple of old posts on that, one of the things he said that really struck me.
"Our expectations in character and integrity in our employees can be no less than what we expect of our students. No single individual is bigger than the team."
Little did he know that three months later, those words would ring true at a campus more than a thousand miles away about a far more dramatic set of events. And that they would resonate as a former FBI director finished dismantling what little remained of Joe Paterno's legacy.I'm not going to recount too much of the Freeh report on what happened at Penn State as Paterno and other administrators tried to figure out what they should do about the monster who was hiding in their athletics department. The report is out there, and you can read it. I tried to skip the most graphic parts and still found it one of the most disturbing things I've ever read.
What you need to know is this: As early as 1998, Paterno and other Penn State administrators knew that the former defensive coordinator had been implicated of behavior that was, in the best-case scenario, completely out of bounds -- and was likely far worse. There were some investigations, there were some missteps in those investigations, and the matter largely passed.
You can fault Paterno and the other Penn State officials for not taking more decisive action then. But what happened next is what is truly revolting.
In 2001, another incident was reported. This is probably the one you've heard the most about if you've been following the story. In attempting to cover up their own involvement in this during the investigation that finally brought justice, all the key decision-makers essentially blamed each other and didn't own up to what they knew about the 1998 incident. Paterno lied to the media, two officials lied to the grand jury and one appears to have at the very least told a self-serving version of quasi-truth to Freeh's investigation.
In the final days of his life, Paterno tried to make the case that he had repeated the report of what happened in 2001 to his superiors, and Freeh largely confirms that. But Paterno tried to pretend that he hadn't heard about the 1998 incident, a lie that the Freeh report thoroughly annihilates.
And anyone who knew about the 1998 incident and knew about the 2001 incident had to know that something wasn't right. Any plausible deniability that anyone had following the 1998 incident was gone three years later, when Paterno heard another report chillingly similar to the first one. But Paterno apparently thought his job was done when he went to his bosses, whether they took it to the authorities or not.
With that decision, Joe Paterno stopped becoming a bystander or a witness.
At that point, Joe Paterno became an accomplice.
- - -
Perhaps we should just be grateful that the stupidity on Twitter was largely confined Thursday -- most people seemed to recognize the gravity of the Freeh report's findings -- but there was plenty of stupidity to be had if you were following the right accounts. (Or watching ESPN at the right time, from what I've been able to gather.) There are still a few people who don't seem to be able to realize why this is such a big deal or why we now have to regard Joe Paterno differently as a head coach.
And it gets back to why some people were surprised when Jeff Long stood up on April 10 and said enough. Why some people were shocked that he would fire a head coach for something that had nothing to do with his coaching acumen.
We have come to accept a principle in America that is devastatingly shallow: That if a high-profile person is good at his or her job, then what they do outside of that job is somehow irrelevant. We have come to accept in sports that it's okay if a player is accused of this or that crime but plays on, as long as the trophies keep piling up and the wins keep coming.
What happened at Penn State, and the riots that followed Joe Paterno's firing, and the comments we're seeing now from those who don't understand the enormity of these events -- all of that is the reductio ad absurdum of the principle that you should just keep winning to make people forget all about your wrongdoing. It is a mindset that we have helped to create.
If you want to say that this case is different -- well, just look at who's leading the premier NBA franchise in Los Angeles and who's quarterbacking a legendary NFL team in Pittsburgh. Those incidents were never proven, of course, but does anyone really think the reaction would have been that much different if they were? Does anyone really think that there wouldn't have been fans jeering in L.A. or demonstrations in Pittsburgh if those cases had been successfully prosecuted?
And does anyone think that Jeff Long will be gainfully employed this time next year if Arkansas goes 5-7 because of a stagnant offense and a series of puzzling decisions by John L. Smith?
- - -
And it's that mindset that is the most troubling thing at the end of the day. Because while it took far too long to do so, the criminal who hid behind the throne at Penn State has finally been brought to justice. Assuming the verdict stands, no one else will be victimized by that individual.
But as long as the mindset remains, as long as there are still those of us who value wins over wisdom and accomplishment over character, it will happen again. The victims might be different, the circumstances might be different, the crimes might even be different. But a life will be broken somewhere, and the institution or the franchise will keep going on like nothing ever happened.
And we'll once again join together and wonder why it happened, why there wasn't someone like Jeff Long to step in and end the madness, why administrators were more interested in how to hide the truth than in how to help the helpless. The answers, sadly, will once again be the same as they seem to have been at Penn State.
The crimes weren't seen, not because they were invisible, but because there were too many reasons not to see them.