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Bob Ryan

Penn State should discuss ending football

What’s truly disturbing to me is that there is no indication that either the Trustees of Penn State University or prominent politicians from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, especially those who may have some say-so in the school’s funding, have had a serious discussion about the viability of shutting down the football program for some introspection.

How can that be?

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Can these people be so dense, so callous, and so absolutely clueless that they think life should now go on as if nothing bad happened under the watch of the school’s administration and athletic departments in the matter of Jerry Sandusky, serial pedophile? That appears to be the case.

I don’t think I’m naive. Given what we’ve seen from their behavior, I wouldn’t expect these people to do the right thing. The football culture must be honored. That’s who they are. But I would think they might have enough savoir faire, enough concession to appearances, to let it be known they have at least recognized that it’s a suitable topic for discussion. Obviously, my assumption is incorrect.

Why do I think the football program should cease functioning for a minimum of two years? It’s very simple. Penn State University needs to demonstrate to the rest of us it knows why it exists. And by not addressing the topic, these people are saying that the reason Penn State exists is to enjoy seven or eight festive Saturdays each autumn, plus whatever relevant or irrelevant bowl games might follow.

Is that so hard to comprehend?

Let’s back up a bit. I come to you as someone who has been following college sports for 60 years. Between the time I was 6 and 8, my father was the assistant athletic director at Villanova. He had promotional duties that included attracting huge crowds to Philadelphia’s gigantic Municipal Stadium for football games against the likes of Kentucky and Mississippi. I went to those games. For each of those two winters we frequently attended a Friday and Saturday college basketball doubleheader at the Penn Palestra, where Penn and Villanova played, or at nearby Convention Hall, where Saint Joe’s, Temple, and La Salle performed. In addition, he took me to Princeton football and basketball games. The seed was planted. I became hooked on college sports.

I’ve had the benefit of exposure to a world essentially unknown to people in New England. I understand the passions and the great rivalries of college sports. Most people in New England do not, and Harvard me no Yales. It’s not the same. The last New England rivalry that even remotely approached the irrational fervor of the big national affairs was probably BC-Holy Cross.

But Holy Cross decided to absent itself from the truly big time, and that was that. If you’ve grown up in New England during the last 25 to 30 years you cannot possibly understand true college sports passion unless you happen to export yourself and have attended one of those inflamed schools.

I love college sports. But I like to think I know where to draw the line.

The scary truth is that the type of concentrated cover-up of a sordid affair that took place at Penn State could have taken place at a number of our collegiate institutions. If you follow college sports at all, you know there are some very prominent universities — most, but not all, large State U’s — where either the football or basketball program has assumed a disproportionate importance in the lives of that state’s citizens. The head coach is the highest-paid public employee and he is an untouchable icon who wields tremendous power, not just at the school but in the state.

Were a Sandusky situation to occur at one of these places, do you doubt for a second that a powerful coach could have influenced the school’s reaction? I have zero doubt that he could, or would.

But in this Penn State situation we have a complete blueprint for disaster. The iconic coach at Penn State, who had started out with many admirable qualities and who had been a positive influence in the lives of many young men who had played for him, was allowed to morph into an omnipotent and irreplaceable entity on campus.

To make a long story short, Pennsylvania State University had been transformed into Joe Paterno U. Presidents cowered in his presence. The Board of Trustees was told where to go when it requested he retire. He should have retired at 70. He didn’t. He should have retired at 75. He didn’t. He should have retired at 80. He didn’t. To the absolute bitter end he thought he could control his own destiny. He was removed, kicking and screaming, upset that he could not finish the 2011 season.

He was the living embodiment of Lord Acton’s famous pronouncement that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I repeat, Penn State needs to shut it down for two years. The school needs to rethink why it exists.

But Penn State has provided a service for the other athletically corrupted behemoths of college sports. Penn State has given the world a How-Not-To. Let’s see if anyone has been taking notes.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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