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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NOTES ON A SCORESHEET
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


It is safe to say the recent media firestorm surrounding Penn State, former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, the dismissal of Joe Paterno, and any related storylines do not figure to abate anytime soon.

This will not be a story like so many of those we see hashed and re-hashed on the various Sunday political talk shows, where this week’s headline is likely to be forgotten by next week. When was the last time we heard about the Ground Zero Mosque, anyway?

No, Penn State-gate is too big to disappear after one or two news cycles, so be prepared for coverage of this scandal to continue into the foreseeable future.

And after years of granting Joe Paterno a very wide berth, much of the national media is beginning to change its tune on ’ol “Shades” since his dismissal last week. As well as on the school itself, which now appears intent on making as clean a break as possible from the Paterno regime after the details of the Sandusky mess became public.

Don’t expect the new head coach (and no, we don’t think it’s going to be interim coach Tom Bradley) to have close ties to Paterno, or even be a part of the Penn State family. Most insiders, noting also that many bowl games are saying they don’t want to touch the Nittany Lions (at least this year) with a ten-foot pole, are convinced that Penn State’s next coach is likely to come from outside the State College, Pa. bubble.

Still, we’re wondering when the national press is going to be a bit more introspective regarding the whole Penn State mess rather than simply changing gears and playing dog-pile on Paterno after the majority of them spent their careers canonizing the Nittany Lions' coach. As we mentioned in our piece (“Not-So-Happy Valley") in last week’s TGS, Paterno has presented a wide target for several years to any potential critics, who, for one reason or another, simply chose to overlook any shortcomings that didn’t fit with a shallow and inaccurate narrative they had collectively been peddling for decades.

But the framework (if not the specifics) which acted as an incubator for the Penn State fiasco similarly exists at many universities in which values have been twisted and corrupted around winning sports teams. And this isn’t even about a culture of skirting the rules in which almost every big-time football and/or basketball power (save, ironically, Bob Knight’s basketball teams) was complicit over the past several decades.

Penn State is just one of several, and hapless, state universities in which it is rare to find anyone owning the moral courage to challenge the all-powerful jock mentality. Indeed, even before some of the hardened criminal elements emerged in the past decade at Penn State (which we mentioned in our story last week), Paterno’s teams always had several borderline cases to go along with the scholarly Mike Reid/Bruce Bannon types. But no one on the Board, none of the faculty (at least Indiana had Murray Sperber and a few other professors who would challenge Bob Knight occasionally), and none of the alumni ever questioned Paterno’s power, or wondered aloud whether football wasn’t simply too big at the university.

No, football made Penn Staters feel on top of their own world. It was more important for those sorts to keep winning Lambert Trophies in the late ‘60s and ‘70s when other state schools such as Virginia, North Carolina, UCLA, Cal, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and others were upgrading their non-football facilities and their student bodies.

Penn State has always had a working class/middle class student body in origin. But with a handful of exceptions, this composition wasn’t used to exercising a leadership function. Penn State lagged behind many of the aforementioned state universities throughout the 60s, 70s, and early 80s until significantly upgrading its graduate departments in recent decades. But until the last two weeks, there has never really been much question about how the university operates... especially its hands-off attitude regarding football.

Paterno’s fund-raising efforts outwardly sanitized the operation for years, and the winning kept the fans satisfied. But within this football greenhouse, a sub-culture was allowed to manifest in State College that placed such emphasis on the gridiron and winning that it lost track of the kind of checks and balances that would, in most (but not all) places, at least put some sort of curb on football-is-everything mantra.

We suggest the types who are as culpable as any in the Penn State mess are the Board members who had the power to overrule Paterno and the university president whenever they wanted, but were too lazy-minded to do so, lest they tamper with “King Football.” Goodness knows the revelations of the disturbing arrest records in the past few years within the football program should have spurred all to action before the Sandusky mess became public knowledge. But the Penn State Board members are much like one of their own, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, whose greatest expertise is in navigating the P.C. bureaucracies of today.

In total, it created an environment in which fear of reprisal prevented those who might have been able to blow the whistle a lot sooner on the Sandusky situation were simply too petrified to do so. In this group would fall at least a couple of known witnesses to Sandusky’s behavior, including a janitor and former player/assistant coach Mike McQueary, himself a product of the Penn State incubator. Their relative inactions were merely a byproduct of the insulated, football-is-king-and-don’t-tamper-with-it environment in which they existed. They, too, were scared what might happen to them if they blew the whistle too loudly.

We also must wonder about the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, and the timing of the Sandusky arrest. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the fallout from this mess would hit Paterno as well. And perhaps it was all just a coincidence that the Sandusky arrest occurred just after Paterno set the all-time win record of 409, passing Grambling’s Eddie Robinson with a 10-7 win over Illinois on October 29.

We’d like to offload some oceanfront property in Phoenix to those who don’t think that “coincidence” is just a bit curious.

* * * * * * * *


It has not been a good couple of weeks for Pennsylvania sports fans. Just before the Sandusky arrest two weeks ago came the news of the passing of longtime Philly resident and former heavyweight champ Smokin’ Joe Frazier at 67 due to complications from liver cancer.

News hit those of us old enough to recall Frazier from the ‘60s and ‘70s pretty hard, as there was a time when Frazier, and of course his longtime foil Muhammad Ali, were the dominant figures of American sport. To this day, we do not think there has ever been a sporting event in our lifetime quite as big as Ali-Frazier I on March 8, 1971, a topic we can hopefully expand upon in the future.

We have often wondered what might have happened had Ali not been stripped of his title in 1967, thus allowing the inevitable collision with Frazier to occur earlier than it eventually did in 1971. Most boxing historians suspect it would have happened sometime in 1968, and the prospect has always tantalized the dreamers among aficionados of the sweet science, who know the Ali of ’68 would likely have been more light-footed than the Ali we knew from the second half of his career that began in October of 1970. Those sorts also know what a hurricane Frazier was in the late ‘60s, a volume-punching machine with a taste for trench warfare still unique among the best heavyweights of all-time.

We have always thought a match between them in ‘68 might have been a cataclysm greater than their later trilogy of battles combined. It could have also accelerated the decline of both much earlier than their wars eventually did.

Lastly, however, mention of Frazier moves us to recommend what is still one of the great sports books of our time, Ghosts of Manila, authored in 2001 by the late Sports Illustrated boxing writer, Mark Kram. Frazier’s passing recalled several passages from Kram’s book in which the author took much criticism for challenging several aspects of the Ali legend, although it needs to be mentioned that Kram was also properly harsh in his many critiques of Frazier when warranted.

Four decades after the Ali-Frazier blood wars, however, many shallow journalists, when recalling Joe’s career, were still acting as Ali apologists, excusing Ali's exceptionally crude and vicious labeling of Frazier as mere attempts to hype the gates for their fights. No wonder many of them recoiled a decade ago at Kram’s assertions that suggested of several gaping holes in the Ali legend. As always, we suggest readers decide for themselves. And whatever conclusions one draws, Ghosts of Manila is, and always will be, must-read stuff.


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