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Three Basic Lessons from Penn State and Syracuse

By: Dr. John Smetanka
Posted Tue., December 20, 2011

The purpose of athletics dating back to the ancient Greeks, at its best, is to teach the skills and values to be a productive member of society. For over a month the media has been saturated with the developing stories out of Division I athletics regarding former coaches Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University and Bernie Fine at Syracuse University. The stories are all too familiar and strike an especially sensitive nerve for Catholics. Looking at the extent of the coverage, one might conclude that there is nothing left to say that has not been said. While that may be true, I see three basic lessons that provide an opportunity for learning that are at least worth of reinforcing.

The first lesson is that our thoughts, prayers, and support need to be with the victims of these and all cases and forms of child abuse. Every necessary resource should be made available to mend the young lives that have been damaged and attempt to restore what was so ruthlessly taken from these children.

A second lesson is a simple reminder: evil exists. One form is the sexual predators that prey on children. They camouflage themselves in trusted positions where they groom the most defenseless to suit their perverted desires. The only defense is awareness and vigilance. In the movie “The Usual Suspects” the character Verbal Kint paraphrases a quote from the French poet Bauderlaire – “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Evil exists, we can find it not only lurking in shadowy places, but also masquerading in positions of trust in a spotlight. To see it, we have to admit it exists.

Far too often we choose to look at the world through a rose-colored glass, avert our eyes entirely, or convince ourselves that certain people, by rank or association, are above suspicion. A third lesson that every individual needs to remember is that you might be tested – so prepare. We know from history and a wide variety of psychological studies that it is far too easy to be a bystander, to allow others to take responsibility, or worse, to place a team, organization, party, tribe or brand ahead of what is right, just, and moral. It is far too easy to say or write this, as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones sing:

I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested.
I'd like to think that if I was I would pass.
Look at the tested, and think there but for the grace go I.
Might be a coward, I'm afraid of what I might find out.

Be ready for the test, while hoping it never comes. Aristotle taught that courage is a habit. Prepare by making sure you have a firm sense of self, of purpose, and practice the courage to act. Know the values that form the basis for your faith, your morality, and who you want to be. Do not wait until you are confronted by evil. This is why we study the classics, theology, history, and all the liberal arts. Humanity has been struggling with evil from the beginning of recorded history – study and prepare so when confronted by evil you will have both the courage and the sense of purpose to steer the right, just, and moral course.
 

Comments:

Well said. Precisely why we study the great works by the greatest minds, those who have examined the perennial questions of human experience—that we may learn what is good, just, noble, honorable; and as importantly, recognize their opposite qualities rooted in the darker side of human nature. Learning and habituating ourselves to the higher qualities of humane and civilized living—that is the value of a liberal arts education.
Posted by: Bill Boxx at December 20, 2011 3:29pm
The passing of Joe Paterno casts a very sad shadow over us this week. Coach Paterno was responsible for so much good. He built a College football program that recognized that success on the field was only part of the measurement of a successful athletic program. The academic achievement of his players and the way in which they conducted themselves on and off the athletic field was a point of pride for the University. His philanthropy, his humility, and his dedication to his family, players, all students, friends, and his University are truly admirable. Unfortunately a self-admitted error of omission has been very publicly exposed over the past three months. No one incident can or should define a person. I feel the jury of history will look at Coach Paterno as a great teacher and leader. Perhaps his final lesson is that even the greatest among us can make mistakes that have horrific consequences and in hindsight we wish we could redo. But of course as sports teach us, we can never have that final shot, kick, or pass back. Once the ball fall short, or goes wide right, or is batted down our only choice is to carry the burden of the mistake, learn from it, ask forgiveness, and move forward. We pray that the perpetual light of God's all embracing love shine on Coach Paterno now and forever. May he rest in peace.
Posted by: John Smetanka at January 24, 2012 11:59am

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Dr. John Smetanka,
Academic Affairs

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.