Monday, January 23, 2012

Football Thoughts

TigerBlog pulled into the parking lot this morning to find assistant football coaches Bill McCord and Andrew Aurich leaving, on their way to the hospital to see running back Chuck Dibilio.

By all accounts, Dibilio is making progress and should be able to leave ICU for a private room, probably today.

In a world where attention span diminishes every day and the ability to get immediate answers is usually no further away than your phone, there is no simple or quick solution to the questions that everyone - Princeton fan or not - has about Dibilio.

Will he be able to return to school and be able to resume his work as if nothing happened?

Will he play football again?

Everyone is rooting for two yeses, though everyone would settle for yes to the first one.

This weekend was devoid of any Princeton athletic activity, as first-semester exam break is a week old.

Without any games to attend, TB found himself watching the ones on television - and thinking about some of the larger questions that sports in this culture raise.

It started with the news about Dibilio Friday.

Here was Princeton's top football player, a completely healthy, formidable 19-year-old, in the hospital with a stroke How does that happen? How does anyone even begin to get a handle on that?

TigerBlog watched the AFC and NFC championship games - except for a big stretch in the Giants-49ers game where he had to pick up TigerBlog Jr. at the train station and found that the roads were emptier at that moment than basically any other time he can remember - yesterday and couldn't help but wonder about the future of the sport.

The violence is getting so dangerous, and yet it seems so easy to fix. Require defenders to tackle with their arms, or make the rule that no part of the defender's body can contact the ball-carrier before the arms and hands.

In other words, no turning the body into a missile and leading with the shoulder or even worse, the head.

Maybe those hits look so much worse in super slow-motion, but it just seems like there's just too much force wiping these guys out. And it's needless, all designed not to achieve the end result of ending the play or breaking up the pass but to make a statement about how hard someone can hit or, even worse, just to get on the highlights or plays of the week.

The worse part, of course, is the example it sets for the high school or even youth players, the overwhelming majority of whom will never play on a level higher.

And yet for all its danger and excesses - and its attempt to use the instant replay rules to destroy the excitement of the game - there is nothing in American culture quite like football.

In the year 2011, nine of the top 10 highest-rated television broadcasts in this country were football games (the 10th was the Academy Awards).

What else would bring that many people out in weather as cold as it was in New England yesterday or as miserable as it was in San Francisco?

What else could attract that viewership?

What else could clear Interstate 95 on a Sunday evening?

The NFL Network series about Super Bowl champions entitled "America's Game" is pretty accurate. Baseball? America's Pastime? Maybe in a past time.

Today, it's all football, all the time.

The Giants are TigerBlog's favorite team, so he's naturally happy about the way the game turned out. Somewhat shockingly, a team that in the beginning of the year was being lambasted for its lack of aggressiveness in personnel moves compared to the Jets and Eagles is now in the Super Bowl.

As an aside, this most be galling to Rex Ryan.

An another aside, one of TB's all-time favorite Princeton athletes - Marc Ross - is the Giants director of college scouting.

As a further aside, with all the money spent on scouting and the draft and all, nobody figured out Victor Cruz was fast and had great hands?

For all of it, though, the one football-related issue that stuck with TB most this weekend was the death of Joe Paterno.

The legendary Penn State coach, who won more games than any other major college football coach ever, died after a short battle with lung cancer. He was 85.

Had Paterno died a year ago, or even a few months ago, his story would have been much different.

In many ways, Paterno was the major college version of much of what is sacred here at Princeton, a big-time embodiment of the phrase "Education Through Athletics."

For much of his career, Paterno was a philanthropist, educator, father-figure - a man of unimpeachable integrity and family values.

And then this fall happened, and all that was left to be questioned.

And, message to ESPN, nobody wanted to hear from Jerry Sandusky about what a great guy Joe Paterno was. It made TigerBlog's skin crawl - and TB is pretty sure that everyone else felt the same way.

Sandusky, of course, is an accused child molester, and though TB understands that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, it doesn't look like Sandusky is innocent here.

And nothing will ever convince TigerBlog that Joe Paterno didn't know - or at the very least, should have done more to find out - exactly what Sandusky was doing in his lockerroom, in his shower room.

TB has struggled through this whole story to figure out what Paterno's culpability is.

On the one hand, TB can't imagine a way that Paterno didn't know the exact details or enough of them that he should have put the safety of young boys well above anything else to do with his program.

On the other hand, if Paterno did know all that and didn't do anything to stop it because he valued the brand of Joe Paterno and Penn State football over the safety of little boys, then he's nothing short of evil.

And TB can't believe that Joe Paterno would know what was going on and sit on it that way. But at the same time, he had to have known, and he clearly didn't stop it.

When the news of Paterno's death came, those were TB's thoughts - that and the way he tried so hard to stay on as the football coach even after the scandal broke.

In a million years, TigerBlog would never have imagined that this would be the way the last four months of Joe Paterno's life would go. It is as shocking as any sports story TB can ever remember, except for O.J., and in some ways, this is worse. Actually, many ways.

TigerBlog Jr. played in the Keystone State Games last summer, and the tournament was held on fields outside Beaver Stadium. TB took a picture of TBJ with the Joe Paterno statue next to the stadium, and it was a pretty good one.

When the scandal broke, TB was too appalled to keep it, so he deleted it.

In years to come, when TB thinks back about Joe Paterno, part of him is going to remember all the good he did, all of the people he impacted for the better, the great influence he had one sport and society.

Then he'll think to the last four months of Paterno's life, and he won't be able to do that.

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