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National Columnist

Blind devotion helped lead Penn St. to its fate, but some still too blind

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A fan sits outside Beaver Stadium after the coach's statue was removed. (Getty Images)  
A fan sits outside Beaver Stadium after the coach's statue was removed. (Getty Images)  

What happened at Penn State was abominable, but don't turn away from it. Look at it, because it was a lesson. For you. And me. For all of us, because all of us have people or teams we root for, which means all of us have a blind spot.

That's where the wreck tends to happen, you know. In the blind spot.

Penn State fans had a blind spot the size of Joe Paterno, and while I'm not blaming the Jerry Sandusky tragedy on that -- I'm blaming it on Sandusky, with help from Paterno and his cronies in the administration -- that blind spot played a role.

Paterno screwed up for years, not just with Sandusky -- which none of us knew about -- but with the way he ignored school regulations to gently discipline his criminally misbehaving players, and even with the way he coached into his upper 70s, then his 80s, as his body was falling apart and his voice lacked the strength to be heard without a microphone.

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When outsiders criticized Paterno, Penn State fans attacked: Who are you to question Paterno? He's earned the right to run his program as he sees fit. Back off, outsider.

That's what Penn State fans told us, and you know who was listening?

Joe Paterno was listening.

Joe Paterno was god-like in State College, Pa., untouchable and unaccountable. He got the message that his wishes were commands, whether his wish was to go soft on player crime, coach forever or -- this would never happen, right? -- stop the school from reporting a pedophile on campus. Paterno thought his ways were always correct, but he didn't come up with that idea on his own.

You gave it to him, Penn State fans.

Here is where I make the obligatory -- and accurate -- comment that it wasn't all Penn State fans who empowered Paterno. There was a quiet minority among you, uncomfortable that he had so grossly exploited his power. As you read this, if you were in that minority, understand: I know you exist.

But there were so many more on the other side, unthinking zombies who took to the streets of State College and rioted after Paterno was fired. It didn't matter to the zombies that Paterno was fired because he'd failed to stop a child predator -- this was Joe Paterno, and he doesn't get fired, do you hear us? He's, like, a god around here.

Paterno believed it.

That's the lesson to learn, and again, I need to learn it. I don't root for any teams, but I have a few coaches I like and a few athletes I want to see do well. John Calipari, Bob McKillop and Andy Kennedy are some of the coaches. Philip Rivers, Jon Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are some of the players. Am I blind to their faults? Probably, yeah. I like who I like, just as you like who you like, but I'll use this Penn State story to remember that my guys aren't bullet-proof, aren't perfect. Should they stray in a way that I'd find unacceptable of someone else, well, I'd need to let them have it.

Because unacceptable is unacceptable, whether it's my guy or yours.

Are you paying attention? This tendency to blind devotion could be you. Maybe it already has been you. Right now the world is aghast that there are blindly devoted Penn State fans who rally behind the Paterno family every time it releases another tone-deaf statement, but not so long ago the world was aghast at blindly devoted Ohio State fans who defended Jim Tressel. He secretly used players he knew were ineligible to win the 2010 Big Ten title -- blowing out Penn State 38-14, by the way -- and OSU fans defended him. Said he shouldn't be fired. Said the media had made a big deal about nothing much.

You hear me, Ohio State fans? You're probably aghast at Penn State now, but where were you in 2010 when it was your school? True, the Penn State scandal trumps all others, but wrong is wrong -- and OSU fans refused to see it in 2010. Because it was their school.

Same thing with North Carolina fans who defended Butch Davis. The man hired an agent's runner and put him in charge of recruiting, which would be the punch line to a pretty good joke if it hadn't actually happened -- but UNC fans defended Davis, saying he had no idea. Never mind that the agent's runner, John Blake, was one of Davis' best friends. Had been for 30 years. Davis couldn't possibly have known, otherwise intelligent fans from a great academic school tried to tell us.

At Tennessee they defended basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who broke NCAA rules and lied to the NCAA about it. At Iowa they defended football coach Kirk Ferentz after an offseason workout put 13 players in the hospital, some for nearly a week. When people like me attacked Ferentz and his conditioning staff led by Chris Doyle, Iowa fans attacked us -- and Ferentz was listening. A few months later, he announced a new award at Iowa: assistant coach of the year. Guess who won it? Chris Doyle. That was for you, Iowa fans. The rest of us are aghast.

At Oregon they still defend Chip Kelly, whose program hurriedly wrote a $25,000 check to a talent scout who wasn't really a scout but who had plenty of talent, players from Texas with a habit of playing for Chip Kelly. The NCAA is investigating, but Kelly is supported by his administration.

Which reminds me of another group that needs to learn from Penn State: school administrators. It's a terrible idea, but there's a reason Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany wants the power to fire a deserving coach -- because he knows the school might not do it. Ohio State refused to fire Tressel until the sound of our laughter finally wore the Buckeyes down. Same thing with North Carolina and Davis, and with Tennessee and Pearl.

Guilty, all of us. Fans, administrators, media. We're blinded by what we believe in, a malady that goes way beyond sports. If you're a Democrat, your side can do no wrong. Same thing for Republicans. Your side is right, and you won't tolerate a peep to the contrary. Why is your side right? Because it's your side. Duh.

Well, your side won't always be right. Remember that, the next time everyone else is aghast. I'm not a big believer in group-think, but every now and then, everyone else is right. Every now and then, your side is wrong.

That's the lesson from Penn State. Will any of us learn, me included?

Doubt it.

Because my side is usually right. It's your side that needs work.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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