The Penn State scandal is bigger than Penn State ... it's about bigness itself
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In the early 1970s when I was 10 years old I would employ every possible kid tactic as I begged my mother to please, please let me stay up just a bit later on Monday nights so I could catch Howard Cosell do Monday Night Football's halftime highlights of that weekend's NFL games. School night bedtimes came with a completely unfair and frustratingly oh-so-close-to-halftime curfew. In those days, the Monday Night Football video montage was nearly the only way you could see players and teams from around the league that weren't from your region.
I loved every minute of it. Cosell was overly dramatic, the teams and players were mythic embodiments of heroic achievement and this glimpse into gridiron exploits from beyond my borders propelled me into an enthusiastic relationship with sports. And I was not alone. It's fair to say that Monday Night Football launched the NFL into the popular and cultural stratosphere where it currently resides.
At the end of that decade, a small cable all-sports network out of Bristol, Conn., with the strange cluster of letters forming the moniker ESPN, was launched as well, and all sports in this country -- professional, collegiate, Olympic, even youth leagues -- were wrenched irretrievably from pleasant pastimes to the commercial big time.
In 1950, way before any of this occurred, Joe Paterno ambled onto the campus of Penn State University to join his former Brown University football coach, Rip Engle, for what he surmised would be two or three years as Engle's assistant on the Penn State team. He needed to cover some loans before heading off for his life's work -- possibly a legal career.
Instead, of course, Mr. Paterno became the primary architect, undisputed patriarch and now self-inflicted casualty of a football program that grew and grew and grew -- spurred on by ESPN and other media outlets, a rabid alumni base saturated in 24-hour sports and, naturally, piles of almighty dollars.
Being big is becoming, well, a big problem. "Too big to fail" financial institutions, big business, big government, big religious organizations and big-time sports have all in one form or another allowed their bigness to overtake their humanness. Big becomes an enabler that obfuscates, forgives and sweeps under the carpet, that allows critical issues to be handled "internally," that even has become a rationale -- however warped -- for criminal behavior or the coverup thereof.
In my industry, advertising and PR, the late Jay Chiat of the famed Chiat/Day agency is often credited with coining the phrase, "How big will we get before we get bad?" I used to believe he was primarily speaking to the quality of the creative product -- that at some point the sheer size of the agency wouldn't allow for great ideas to surface.
In the wake of what has happened -- and is still happening -- in the financial sector with the Madoffs, the AIGs, Fannie, Freddie and others; with the struggle of small businesses in the face of huge retailers; with a completely dysfunctional political process, and, in this latest disturbing example emanating from the ivy walls of Penn State, I'm beginning to believe that his phrase now has deeper, more troubling layers. Big strikes at the core of those qualities that make us civil, decent and accountable human beings who employ some semblance of healthy perspective.
Penn State and Joe Paterno are manifestations of big.
I am a graduate of Penn State (class of '83) and was among the legion of those insufferable alumni who wore the brand as a model of how to do football and academics right. I've met Joe a few times -- "met" in the way people meet grandees at functions designed to give them maximum exposure to the masses.
The lone exception was in 1980-81 when I set up residence in the North Hall dorms on campus just blocks from Joe's house. I regret to say that I spent more time on the nearby basketball courts than in classrooms.
Back then, Joe used to occasionally walk to the football complex through North Hall and, ever the coach, would often stop and critique our play. "Not so good on defense are you?" Or "You should think about giving the ball up more often with your shot."
Joe was funny, approachable and at the height of his power, an era which approximately spanned the late '70s to the early '90s. He was becoming the JoePa brand. And this is when big began to infect Penn State football.
Joe became a larger-than-life icon. The stadium bloated to hold more than 112,000 paying customers. Corporate sponsors lined up for a piece of the action. ESPN called often. College football records were collected.
Whispers about Jerry Sandusky tragically stayed whispers in the face of all that big. JoePa and Penn State football became too big too fail, its brand overpowering the perspective necessary to view objectively actions that would be evident as wrong to anyone outside the bubble.
The people now shrieking that they would have done this or that differently from JoePa or Penn State administrators should be aware that they're viewing the situation through an entirely different lens. Those who live inside the bigness of Penn State, or the Catholic Church, or Washington, D.C., or a large financial behemoth, do not see things the same way. It's not an excuse -- it's a reality.
Big destroys people. Life savings demolished, small businesses ruined, bailouts for those who need them least. Healthy human relationships, honesty, self worth, perspective, objectivity -- all are sacrificed for something "bigger" than the individual. That's hard to square with an elderly couple defrauded out of their life's savings or the parents of a 10-year-old left alone with Jerry Sandusky, but there it is.
We live in a growth society. As I channel my inner Jerry Maguire ("fewer clients, more personal attention!"), I realize that big is not going away -- it isn't possible culturally. But I am more suspicious of big than at any other point in my life.
Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple (caveat to come) all have me wary of their sheer bigness. The digital and social connectivity cults of big dwarf the Penn State version. It may not be outright paranoia, but I certainly have a reasonable concern that these enterprises are getting so big that they, too, will turn bad.
Big-time sports, politics, religion, finance -- all have become cautionary tales and remind me to step back now and then from the hyper-data-driven, number-focused, brand-conscious machinery that propels a never-ending march toward big and to let small own a bit part in the process.
In his biography of Steve Jobs (and here's the caveat), Walter Isaacson chronicles the Apple founder's fanatical, sometimes brutal pursuit of the small details of each product. Small became an overarching aesthetic for Apple and helped give its electronics a human feel. This ironically made Apple big, really big -- either the most or second-most valuable company in the world, depending on the week.
Small is a reminder. Details matter. Small corresponds to being human and should be given more consideration and audience within the cults of big. Small can help deliver value and profits but, far more importantly, it also can instill perspective and empathy.
If we can get back enough small, maybe 10-year-old boys will again be able to look at sports as I did all those years ago and be thrilled, not threatened.
First Published November 27, 2011 12:00 am