November 16, 2011

Down Goes Frazier … and Paterno: A Tale of Two Joes

For years I have closed many columns with, “Have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, and do justice.” Somewhere along the line, as I lost faith in leadership across the board, I added “do not leave the people in the hands of fools.” Admittedly, it is a tough charge to live up to.

Let’s deconstruct this thing. Most people constantly live in fear and suffer from weakness in many variations. Truth is a rare commodity, and the word justice is thrown about like dice on a depraved street corner on Friday night in the ’70s, but rarely sought or realized. Let’s face it — we give fools a pass daily!

That said, even the weak and cowardly must take a stand every now and then. The ongoing horror at Penn State that has claimed the careers of legendary football coach Joe Paterno, celebrated president Graham Spanier, and the innocence of a yet undetermined number of young boys is proof of that fact.

A few days before Penn State fired Paterno and Spanier in the wake of a sex abuse scandal that had fomented for almost a decade, the great Smokin’ Joe Frazier succumbed to liver cancer. Frazier never completely got his due, largely because he had the misfortune of being a contemporary of Muhammad Ali.

Unfortunately, the most recognizable phrase associated with Frazier is Howard Cosell bellowing, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” when George Foreman dropped him the first of six times in 1973 during a two-round dismantling. That’s right — Frazier was knocked down six times in two rounds. Down he went again and again, but kept getting back up to face the seemingly indestructible Foreman.

Defiantly, Frazier was not defined by Cosell’s words heralding defeat or Ali’s mean-spiritedness that stung Frazier for decades in their bitter, disturbing feud. Frazier also had words of his own. At the time of his passing, one of his most insightful quotes deserves attention:

“You can map out a fight plan or a life plan. But, when the action starts, it may not go the way you planned and you’re down to your reflexes. That’s where your roadwork shows. If you cheated on that in the dark of the morning, well, you’re going to be found out now, under the bright lights.”

Of course, Frazier’s “roadwork” isn’t just about 5 a.m. runs. It’s about life and its challenges.

In 2002, former Penn State quarterback and then graduate assistant Mike McQueary was challenged. McQueary has testified that he walked into an athletic facility shower and saw longtime defensive coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy around 10 years old. McQueary did not confront Sandusky. He did nothing to stop the then 58-year-old man from allegedly sodomizing the boy. McQueary walked out of that shower, called his father, and told Coach Joe Paterno what he saw the next day. Maybe he was traumatized — I don’t know.

Paterno reported it to athletic director Tim Curley. The case then apparently ran up Penn State’s chain of command to vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz, and ultimately (supposedly) to university president Graham Spanier. The outcome? Sandusky was ordered to cease bringing children to campus. Disturbingly, he was allowed to maintain a campus presence and office until a few weeks ago. Sandusky’s abuse continued with what some reports say is up to 20 boys. No Penn State official, NO ONE went to the police or any other off-campus authorities — for almost a decade! Mind-boggling!

If Sandusky is guilty (and it seems he is), then he is a monster. If he did these things, let’s hope he goes to prison.

At the writing of this, all the aforementioned men (with the exception of Mike McQueary who is now Penn State’s wide receivers coach) have lost their jobs. It is a complex situation, especially considering the incredible good that Paterno and Spanier have done in their careers.

We all fail from time to time. We all make mistakes. We all come up short. We all have moments of weakness, but in certain situations, we all have to be strong, stand on that truth, and do that justice — and we must not waver. Some things are clear. Cases involving the abuse of children are such situations.

Joe Frazier was a man. He kept standing up. Unfortunately, for years, no one at Penn State did.