Penn State Can Rebound From Scandal – Just as Dallas Recovered from JFK Tragedy

A trip to the TicketCity Bowl will help the wounded psyche of the Penn State football faithful, and a number one ranking in both major polls is providing respite for fans of Syracuse basketball. But their ordeal is far from over. In fact, it’s hardly begun.

There’s no telling how many cases involving either will wind up in civil or criminal court. And what’s even tougher to judge is just how long the stink will remain attached to both programs.

Orange coach Jim Boeheim could outlast the shame he brought upon himself with the calloused remarks he made about alleged victims of his former assistant coach, Bernie Fine. He was trying to protect and defend a friend, but Boeheim went so far over the line, he might never get back. Another national title could wipe the slate clean in the minds of the most ardent Syracuse fans, but it wouldn’t alter the national college hoops consciousness.

It’s far more likely that the stain on Penn State football will linger for years, no matter how quickly the won-loss record becomes healthy under whoever tackles the gargantuan undertaking as The Man Who Follows Joe Paterno.

What accused child molester Jerry Sandusky allegedly did eventually brought down one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football, as well as the school’s AD. And it struck a chord with UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.

“It could be anybody,” Barnhart said recently. “I know all those folks. This is a small business. Everybody knows everybody.
“As I watched the courtroom scene, when Tim Curley had to go to court, I thought, ‘There’s a good man.’ He’s not a bad man. He’s a really good guy. Unfortunately, he’s going through an unbelievable time in his life right now, which is just incredible to me.”
Barnhart said the Penn State scandal has forced him to re-think the way UK handles some methods of interacting with youngsters.
“There’s things that pop up, that didn’t used to be a thought in your mind, now all of a sudden are (an issue). Things like summer camp, overnight summer camp,” he said. “Age limitations never were an issue. I sent my kids to summer camp when they were 8, 9, 10 years old. I never would have thought about that even being an issue. But now all of a sudden, if I’m a parent, I’d be saying, I’m not so sure I want to do that any more. Maybe we put an age limitation on an overnight camp. They can come to a day camp but they can’t stay over night.”

Coaches and staff members are reminded constantly, he said, of the proper way to conduct themselves.
“You want people who understand that and feel like they want to treat people the right way,” Barnhart said. “I think we’ve done a good job of identifying solid people, people who are normal in their daily life and good people, who we can count on. That’s the first step of the hiring process. Knowledge of the game, energy level - those are almost givens. We’ve been very fortunate when I look at our roster of coaches.
“We’ve tried to find people we think understand what that looks like, how to treat people in general, and that trickles down to how you treat student-athletes. People who were coached as athletes at universities, how did you want to be treated? How would you want someone to treat you? We try to continue to talk about that - don’t put yourself in positions of risk.”

Even if that conversation happened at Penn State, obviously, it didn’t take.

“I felt bad that that had to happen,” Barhnart said. “I don’t know all the circumstances and it’s not my position to comment on any of that but I feel bad for everyone involved, from the people the day all those things occurred until now and everything in between. It’s just unfortunate on so many fronts.”

What happened in the sleepy town of State College, Pennsylvania, is the most sordid chapter in the history of college athletics. Worse than a murder among basketball teammates at Baylor; a play-for-pay conspiracy that resulted in the death penalty for SMU football; and a variety of basketball point-shaving scandals, including one at Kentucky in the 1950s.

All of those programs survived, but it took time to recover. Some believe PSU can never fully shake the specter of what happened there to young boys, and its subsequent cover-up. Wondering if such a thing is possible – can time REALLY heal this wound? – my thoughts drifted to one day in 1983, in Dallas, Texas.

I had just moved there to begin a new job as Executive Producer of the Southwest Conference football radio network – the same league that included an SMU team that had been nailed by the NCAA but had not yet learned of its fate.

I had never been to Dallas. All I had heard about it (and it was quickly confirmed) was that it was big and, during the summer, the heat was scorching.

It was also the place where John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
I was in third grade when it happened, and I remembered the news coverage and the Warren Report (such as it was). I was only beginning to learn of all the potential conspiracy theories when I moved to the big D.

As fall approached, there was more and more local coverage of the upcoming 20th anniversary of the shooting. Newspapers published special sections; writers since retired who had covered the event shared their remembrances. More and more documentaries appeared on television. In fact, one of the independent stations began to air everything it had in its archives surrounding the assassination, as well as the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Every frame of video appeared, around the clock.

It was fascinating. And I’ll never forget asking a co-worker, who was from Dallas, “Do they do this every five years or something?”
He turned to me and said, “They’ve never done this. Ever.”
Why? I asked. Because, he told me, after the murder of a president in your town, the local people want to forget. They hated the fact that Dallas, Texas (in 1963 not nearly the sprawling business hub that it is now) became known for that one thing. In fact, Howard Cosell was unpopular in a lot of NFL towns for a lot of reasons but in this one, they hated the fact that he once stepped off a plane and said, “Dallas, Texas – the city where they shoot presidents.”
But Dallas recovered. How?

Through the merits of the pastime they love most in Texas: Football.
The same friend who told me that the media had made no mention of Kennedy’s assassination also told me that for years, Dallas city fathers conducted nation-wide surveys, asking people what they think of when they hear the name of that city. Naturally, the number one answer usually involved the tragedy that occurred on Nov. 22, 1963.
But eventually, that changed. One day, the most popular answer to the question, “What comes to mind when you think about Dallas, Texas?” became: “The Cowboys.”

That’s right, football. The success of what had become known as “America’s Team,” coupled with the healing properties of time, spread across a new generation, had tweaked the country’s perception of the city.

What happened to JFK, and our nation, on that day in 1963 will never be forgotten, obviously, just as the heinous crimes committed at Penn State need to be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted. And this is not to say football is more important than being aware of the events that led to both tragedies.

It just means that, whenever and however any type of healing begins, sports can help any community pull itself together. But it needs to work as a prism – not a blockade, which is what led to the cover-up in State College.

Dick Gabriel is a three-time Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year and has been a member of the UK TV and radio network for nearly three decades. He can be heard each night from 6-8 p.m. on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM in Lexington.

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