By Mike Moran
It is becoming the question that I keep asking myself, repeatedly.
Why are Penn State and Nebraska going to play a college football game on Saturday?
The more I ponder the question, the more reasons I find to question the contest, as unpopular as the concept of cancellation may seem to most.
As I watched the chaos unfold last night in State College after the announcement by the Trustees of Penn State that coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier were gone, my first thoughts took me back to November 23, 1963, and a game played in the midst of the agony of a nation when it should have been cancelled.
On that crisp autumn Saturday, Bob Devaney’s Nebraska Cornhuskers played Bud Wilkinson’s powerful Oklahoma Sooners at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln for the Big Eight title and a berth in the Orange Bowl, r postponed and the NFL cancelled its entire weekend. The NCAA left that decision up to the schools, and it is said that Wilkinson got the go-ahead from Bobby Kennedy to play the game, though the Governor of Nebraska wanted to cancel the game. Though the President had been assassinated, four dollar seats were going for as much as forty dollars, there was a national television audience to consider, and both schools were unbeaten in league play.
I was there that day, as a young television reporter at KMTV in Omaha, and so were two of my colleagues at the station, an also young Tom Brokaw and Bill Greene, assigned to interview fans about the game and their view of whether or not it should be played. I was in the end zone, shooting film in the fourth quarter, when oranges began to pour down on the field. When the Huskers finished their 29-20 triumph, students stormed the field and tore down the goalposts……….and got the day off the following Tuesday because of the triumph. I have never forgotten that moment, the horrible weekend, and the mood of the nation, but college football had to be played that afternoon in Lincoln. The chance to make a statement about something “bigger than football” lost.
The Trustees at Penn State said last night that all of this “was bigger than football,” as they revealed the decision to oust the head coach and President. And then, an element of the student body and others overturned a media van and destroyed property downtown well into the evening.
All this in the aftermath of revelations of perhaps the worst chapter in American sports history, one that will impact society and the institution for years. How many kids may have been damaged and their lives ruined?
Today, Nebraska officials have made statements worrying about the safety of their team and fans on Saturday, a central figure in the scandal will be coaching on the sidelines for Penn State, and millions will watch on network television. A media circus that exceeds most anything I experienced through fourteen Olympic Games will ensue, and it is possible that goalposts will fall again.
Thankfully, as of today, ESPN’s College Game Day show is still set for Stanford ahead of the game with Oregon.
CBSSports columnist Dennis Dodd said today “Let’s hope this is the moment when it begins, a movement to take back college athletics from the current stakeholders. They have failed miserably — the bloated athletic departments; the overpaid, out-of-touch coaches; the apparel companies; the networks; maybe even the NCAA. This is where the excess has to stop. This has to be the point when universities quit bowing down to King Football, quit drooling over the prospect of colorful uniforms, stop being beholden to ratings.”
My friend at the New York Times, the estimable columnist George Vecsey, said this week, “Lots of Happy Valleys out there.” Occasionally a critic like Taylor Branch or a panel calls for reform. At Penn State, it was even worse than prostituting education for the sake of a football powerhouse. The entire old-boy system in that university managed to overlook the possibility that children’s lives were being ruined, within the dangerous cocoon of King Football. We need to look beyond the alleged abuses. We need to look at the system that encouraged people to look the other way. Really, we need to do something about big-time college sports.”
Omaha sports writer Dirk Chatelin said Wednesday, “We all glorify college football — some of us even profit from it. We make its actors our heroes and our villains. It’s part of our culture. But times like these, football is not important. For one week, Penn State should do the right thing. Shine the light away from the field. Let Beaver Stadium sit empty. Forfeiting Saturday’s game would be a gesture of compassion to the victims. It would signal to fans and athletes that getting to the bottom of the mess is the highest priority. It would show that some things at Penn State are more important than beating Nebraska and winning a Big Ten title.”
On Saturday, the irony is inescapable for me, Nebraska goes into Beaver Stadium to take part again in a game that perhaps should not be played.
Nonetheless, even after the football messes at Miami, Ohio State, the Fiesta Bowl and the mad chaos of conference realignment for television dollars this year, the Penn State scandal may finally be the catalyst for change, and another “realignment,”………..one of values and priorities that have been lost.
Mike Moran was the Sports Information Director at Nebraska-Omaha and the University of Colorado before becoming the chief spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee for a quarter century, through thirteen Games, from Lake Placid to Salt Lake City. He joined the USOC in 1978 as it left New York City for Colorado Springs. He was the Senior Communications Counselor for NYC2012, New York City’s Olympic bid group from 2003-2005 and is now a media consultant and works with the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation. www.coloradospringssports.org. His opinions are his own.
He can be reached at email@example.com
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