Harris has come under fire and has a job 'on hold' for his comments and defense of his former coach Joe Paterno. Courtesy seattlepi.com

Franco Harris Backlash: Defends JoePa, Assailed By Mayor

The scandal that has rocked an entire university has created a ripple effect that reaches students (past and present), football players and anyone with a human  conscience.  The reactions to the scandal have been rather polarizing – surprisingly polarizing.  Students who idolize Nittany Lion football and a man who has been the icon of Penn State since he began coaching at the school in 1966 were outraged at the coach’s ousting and decided that rioting in the streets was more important than reflecting on a horrific and traumatic event as sexual abuse of minors.  Others, such as alumni of the football program, are outraged at the actions of Sandusky and the inactions of the leadership within the athletic program and school itself.  But there is one former Penn State running back and Steeler who has stepped in front of criticism about his former coach and come under fire himself – Franco.

A fire quite literally, as in fired.  Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl wrote a letter to Harris on Thursday in response to Harris’ comments that Paterno fulfilled his legal obligation to notify school officials as to what took place with Sandusky and a young boy in the showers.  In that letter Ravenstahl wrote,

When I personally asked you to join the board of the Pittsburgh Promise, I had every confidence that you would exercise sound judgment in your public life. Sadly, these statements show no regard whatsoever for the well-being of the young victims of sexual abuse and have led me to question your position of trust…. It is my ethical and moral responsibility to recognize that you are no longer a suitable representative for any organization, let alone ours, and demand that you resign immediately from the Board of the Pittsburgh Promise.

Strong words and reaction towards someone who was just stating his personal opinion about a man whom he idolized for years as a coach and man.  But is Ravenstahl’s reaction appropriate or excessive?  And is Harris’ defense of JoePa misguided or emotionally displaced?

As we’ve seen in the firings and unpaid leaves of numerous folk in positions of authority at Penn State, people are trying to distance themselves like some kind of controlled burn of a raging wild fire.  And rightfully so – this was a pretty heinous act, and those who failed to act needed to be held accountable.  Ravenstahl is being very calculated and careful about having a high profile person seen in a negative light involving any civic program – especially one that deals with kids considering what this mess was all about to begin with.  Is it an overreaction?  Maybe.  It’s not like Harris said ‘Sodomy with kids is cool.’  I’m sure Ravenstahl is also concerned about his own reputation not wanting to have this reflect poorly on him as mayor (he’s got enough already doing that).  By saying Paterno did what he was obligated to ‘legally’ but not morally, Ravenstahl sees that not sound judgement.

Well all have heros in our lives.  My father is mine, and there are only a few other people that I really look up to in my life.  Harris, like many young football players, highly respected his coach.  It only makes sense – they can be like second fathers to these young men (sometimes the only father).  But we are talking about an awful crime that was committed in which no action let alone the appropriate action took place.  Paterno received the report of the actions, said things to school authorities (not police) and did nothing else.  He didn’t pursue any course of action while Sandusky continued to coach and stay on the payroll.  Wouldn’t you find that strange and investigate?  Doesn’t Paterno have a moral obligation as a leader of that team and as an upstanding human being to have some sort of followthrough?

Harris’ defense of Paterno is completely misguided.  Harris has been in the public eye since his time at Penn State as a college athlete back in early 70′s.  Since retiring from football, Harris has been sought out as a face for promotion and marketing – both for charity and for profit businesses.  Pittsburgh Promise is an organization that focuses on helping kids.  The fact Harris stepped into the spotlight to defend his former coach is in direct conflict of being a member on the board of Pittsburgh Promise.  Why would you even defend that in a public statement?  It’s terrible that this happened, and it’s sad to see that such a great coach went out this way.  But the NCAA is not bigger than human decency.  And a football coach and a team’s staff is not above human decency.  And JoePa failed.  And to defend those misgivings is wrong.  We’ve all stepped up to the plate at some point and struck out miserably at some point in our lives when it comes to choosing what is right and decent over the easy way out.  But this situation pales in comparison.

Harris, for me at least, will never be the same in my eyes.  He will forever be a hero of football and Steeler lore – no doubt about that.  But he has failed (not quite as badly as JoePa) as a person by defending his coach who failed on moral grounds.

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