No one had a clue. Not his coaches. Not his teammates. Not even his mother, looking on from her usual spot in the grandstand. On a foggy November night four years ago, Drew Rickerson found himself wandering around the sidelines of a football field in Sequim, Wash., a city of 6,600 on the state's Olympic peninsula. He was 15 years old, playing quarterback for the Sequim High varsity football team in the final game of the regular season, a week away from the state playoffs. He also was struggling to speak, dazed and disoriented, hardly able to drink water.

Minutes earlier, Rickerson had been on the field, rolling out to the right, taking on an opposing linebacker. The two collided, their helmets smashing together like bowling balls. Rickerson suffered a concussion, his brain slamming against the inside of his skull. He should have been evaluated, gone to the hospital, right then and there. A second hit could have caused more brain damage. Killed him, even. But no one had a clue. And so he stayed in the game, for a total of nine additional plays, throwing for a touchdown and running for another, the latter a 23-yard weave though multiple defenders, Russian Roulette in shoulder pads.

Rickerson flipped the ball to an official. He staggered toward his team's bench. Felt funny. On the sidelines, he stared at the overhead lights. Shapes became blurry; noises, jumbled. Four times, he sat down, stood up, then asked his coaches if he could sit back down. He dropped his helmet, picked it up, dropped it again. Over and over, he squirted water from a bottle over his shoulder, thinking it was going into his mouth. Nobody noticed. No one had a clue. Not until the game was over, when Rickerson and his teammates turned to face the grandstand. As the young men sang the school's fight song, Jean Rickerson finally got a good look at her son's face.

Full Story >>

The scene was unimpeachable, a heartwarming slice of homespun Americana. Ma and Pa Paterno. One daughter and three sons. All of them gathered 'round the kitchen table of the family’s modest stone-and-plate-glass home, a table piled high with cornbread and mashed potatoes, the same table where the old man eats and prays.

Oh, and don't forget the high-priced Washington attorney, as well as the hired-gun communications adviser, both monitoring every word -- every whisper, really -- coming out of Joe Paterno's mouth.

Just like your house, right?

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, Paterno has every reason to defend himself in the court of public opinion against charges that he: (a) knew too much and (b) did too little. Moreover, he has every right to speak out. Heck, from Herman Cain to Kim Kardashian, mea non-culpa is practically the American way.

On the other hand, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Paterno could have remained quiet. Kept a low profile. Let the legal process run its course. He chose otherwise. Bad move. In his much-hyped recent interview with the Washington Post, he comes across as an ailing octogenarian whose focus ought to be on getting well, as opposed to rehabilitating his tattered image. And that's at best. At worst, he seems like a disingenuous control freak, still trying to bend the world from his sick bed, a man who takes the American public to be, well, fools.

Either way, Paterno didn't do himself any favors.

Start with credibility. Paterno lacked it. The crux of the disappointment and outrage directed at the old coach is simple: When then-Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary allegedly told Paterno that he saw Sandusky sexually abusing -- read: raping -- a boy in the shower of the school's football building, the most powerful man in State College reportedly didn't press for details. He didn't call the police. He didn't confront Sandusky. He simply referred McQueary to university athletic director Tim Curley, then went along his merry, character-building way.

Paterno's explanation? As he told the Post, McQueary was vague when describing exactly what he witnessed. Moreover, had he specifically painted a verbal picture of Sandusky anally raping a helpless boy, Paterno wouldn’t have understood what McQueary was talking about.

"You know, [McQueary] didn't want to get specific," Paterno said in the interview. "And to be frank with you I don't know that it would have done any good because I never heard of, of, rape and a man."

In other words: A grown man and father of four children living in a modern America of newspapers and televisions and after-school specials and public service announcements and To Catch a Predator has never, ever heard of child sex abuse of a boy. A supposed classics scholar cannot mentally conceive of pederasty, never mind that it was a common, accepted practice in ancient Greece. A professed Catholic is shocked, just shocked, to the point of total cognitive shutdown by the utterly incomprehensible notion of a man sexually assaulting a boy, despite an unending series of headline-generating scandals that continue to rock the Vatican, scandals involving -- to use Paterno's terms -- boys and rape and a man.

Really, JoePa? That's your excuse?

Happy Valley might be an isolated, provincial throwback to an era of pep rallies and malted shakes; it is not a land of leprechauns and unicorns.

Similarly, Paterno said that the reason he reported McQueary's allegation but declined to follow up – thereby fulfilling his bare minimum legal obligations, if not his moral ones – was because he felt inadequate to the task. As he told the Post, "I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was." That sounds perfectly reasonable -- assuming you know nothing about Paterno's track record, his considerable campus clout and his demonstrated willingness to use it.

Full Story >>

Enough was enough. The television network was getting a spectacle, a shiny bauble with which to lure both eyeballs and advertisers. The school was getting a payday, a hefty holiday stocking stuffer. And the players? Nothing. Nothing but a few more weeks of practice, battered pads and helmets, bodies too, of running and hitting and aching, a draining coda to a long, tough season. All for the opportunity to play middling mid-December college football in cloudy Philadelphia, where the sideline palm trees were imported -- and the 22-degree temperatures were not.

"I still remember running out on the field," says former Syracuse linebacker David Meggyesy. "They had brought in the palms because we were playing against Miami. It was cold as hell, wind blowing, snow, and I’m thinking, 'God, those poor trees.'"

Like a frosted palm frond, Meggyesy felt out of his element. So did many of his teammates. In fact, when Syracuse first agreed to participate in the 1961 Liberty Bowl, a made-for-television matchup featuring star Orangemen runner Ernie Davis (at right) and gifted Miami quarterback George Mira, the linebacker's reaction was typical: since the coaches and administrators accepted the invitation, maybe they should play the game. Disgruntled, the Syracuse players held a special meeting. No coaches allowed. The assembled college athletes had more questions than answers. Why are we even playing in this game? What is it about? Who is ultimately benefiting? The seniors talked boycott. A decision was made. If the team had to play – and in a second-rate icebox bowl nobody had ever heard of, to boot -- the players should at least get something in return. Say, wristwatches. Nice ones. Like the nice wristwatches given out at the major bowls, the Orange and the Rose. And so, the team met with coach Ben Schwartzwalder.

We want watches, they said. Or else we won't play.

A half-century later, their message is more relevant than ever.

Monday night's BCS title game was many things: A 21-0 victory for Alabama; a vindication of Nick Saban's sweep-the-leg coaching style; an entirely unnecessary excuse to party on Bourbon Street. Mostly, though, the contest was a missed opportunity. A wasted chance to bring about change. To hit big-time college sports where they hurt. To strike a decisive blow against a bloated, corrupt, morally bankrupt and downright un-American system that Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch has charitably likened to a modern-day plantation. And all it would have taken was players from Alabama and LSU to link arms, walk to the 50-yard line, sit down on the SuperDome turf and say the following:

We want fairness. We want a say. Or else we won't play.

The economic status quo in BCS-level college athletics -- management makes the rules and reaps the profits; labor has minimal rights, compensation and recompense -- is untenable. Deplorable. Hopeless, really, in the long run, given that the money involved keeps growing and the resulting inequity becomes more and more obvious. Two years ago, Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan -- a man who creates little value beyond capably filling an ugly yellow blazer -- earned a reported salary of $593,718.

Meanwhile, a skilled performer like LSU's Tyrann Mathieu -- whom people actually want to watch on television, and are willing to sit through endless advertisements to do so -- gets a scholarship worth a tenth of that amount. Oh, and if Mathieu tried to capitalize on his actual market value -- perhaps by selling T-shirts – he would be punished for both his entrepreneurial hustle and for violating the tenets of amateurism, the classic Greek philosophy of this pie is all mine, enjoy the crumbs, sucker.

But I digress.

Things fall apart. The NCAA as we know it cannot hold on indefinitely, any more than Hosni Mubarak could hold on in Egypt. Everyone knows this. Problem is, the system isn't falling apart fast enough. It's stubborn and entrenched. Which makes sense. After all, if you were a college sports powerbroker -- a conference commissioner, a university president, a megabucks coach -- why would you want anything to change? You make the money. You call the shots. In a neat bit of cognitive dissonance -- the same trick practiced by economic overlords everywhere, once known as the White Man's Burden -- you probably have convinced yourself that the great and noble cause of having college football and basketball players work for almost free as living, breathing brand marketing brochures is somehow righteous. We're doing this for education and the love of the game -- oh, wow, you want to give me a million bucks to wear this shoe company lapel pin? In short, you have no incentive to change, and every incentive to keep on keepin' on.

Full Story >>

"Will you marry me?" Jenny Malott gets that a lot. Comes with the territory, really. When you look like a professional football cheerleader, and act like one, and show up to actual professional football games alongside two dozen other young women dressed like one -- wearing silver knee-high boots with pleated blue miniskirts and matching, ab-revealing half-tops, color-coordinated pom-poms in tow -- people tend to behave accordingly. Guys, especially. They profess their undying love. They ask for your hand in blessed matrimony. They chant your group's name: De-troit Pride! De-troit Pride! Mostly, people ask for pictures. Hundreds of pictures, during each Detroit Lions home contest, inside and outside Ford Field, with excited little girls and embarrassed teenage boys and very excited young men, digital cameras beeping and flashing. Pictures until your face hurts from smiling so much. Pictures that are unique, yet in one way all the same.

"We always stand with our shoulders back and put our pom-poms on our hips, throw our elbows out a bit," Malott says. "Say some drunk person wants a picture and wants to hug you. We're not allowed to do that. If they're pulling you in and your elbows are out, they can't really go anywhere."

And that works?

"It's not like you're elbowing them."

Full Story >>