After the NCAA announced on Monday unprecedented sanctions against Penn State University for inaction among prominent leaders in a child sex abuse scandal that began to unfold last fall, Sports Illustrated magazine was quick to devote its July 30, 2012 cover to the fallout.
By the end of the day, the cover, featuring a lone helmet on a football field against a black background with the words “We Were Penn State” in large, bold letters, was quickly causing fallout of its own, with many Penn State alumni voicing their displeasure on social media and message boards over the (mis)use of the school’s beloved chant.
Much time has been spent—and rightly so—in stressing that the child victims and the lack of protection they were given takes precedence over football, athletics, image or anything else seemingly used as an excuse not to ensure their safety.
But with the NCAA stepping in and assuming an atypical role in legislating matters of morals or ethics—particularly as they don’t relate to its own bylaws—it was a very crushing and costly reminder of the same.
As NCAA President Mark Emmert revealed punishment after punishment, the resounding reminder to big-time college football (or any sport) programs was that some things are greater than themselves.
Who knew what and when and where to cast blame in the Penn State scandal can be debated ad nauseum. But what has been revealed over and over is that there were plenty of adults—ranging from the powerless to the very powerful—who should have done more, but for whatever reason did not.
On Sunday, the statue of former longtime head coach Joe Paterno was removed from its place outside the stadium, and on Monday, school administrators somberly accepted their fate from the NCAA.
Perhaps the intent of Sports Illustrated’s cover was to symbolize that what was Penn State—at least where the scandal is concerned—can be put to rest and now the long road to rebuild its image can begin.
But that only tells part of the story, and that’s why twisting the words of “We Are Penn State” was more salt in the wound. Ironically, Sports Illustrated’s use of this longtime chant of solidarity—some even trace it to the days of segregation in the late 1940s, though it wasn’t a stadium-wide cheer until the late 1970s—is creating more division.
What Sports Illustrated disregarded—at least judging by the cover—was that image goes beyond football, and the rest of the university—while it may suffer as a result of the athletic program’s misdeeds—should not be defined by it alone.
Ultimately, the actions of a few—far-reaching though they were—may have the power to cripple an athletic program for even the foreseeable future. But once again, some things are still more important and bigger than football, and Sports Illustrated’s latest cover missed the opportunity to reinforce that.