The Hard Truths Illuminated by the Fall of Joe Paterno, the Death of Joe Frazier and the NBA Lockout

NEW YORK -- More than a decade ago, when Ken Dryden was President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I rode with him as he drove to Buffalo during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Dryden -- a Cornell graduate, a Hall of Fame goalie, a lawyer, an author and a future member of Canada's Parliament -- was no dumb jock. He spoke of the vivid, unscripted drama of sports and how they amount to national theater.

"I'm not sure there are many experiences through which people learn more than they do through sport, watching that drama night after night," Dryden said. "Kids are learning lessons. Parents are learning lessons. 'Be like so-and-so.' 'Don't be like somebody else.' For good and bad, sport has immense influence."

Dryden's observations echoed in my memory this week while contemplating three immense sports stories that transcended mere athletic competition and took Dryden's philosophy to a higher level.

The first was the death of Joe Frazier, a courageous boxing champion who never quite got his due in life. One of his greatest performances, a defeat, illustrated how finishing second does not necessarily label a person a loser and sometimes ennobles him.

The second was the scandal at Penn State -- the alleged rapes of young boys by an assistant coach -- that forced a disgraceful ending to the glittering career of head coach, Joe Paterno. Until now, his name was as venerated in his profession as that of Knute Rockne.

The third issue, not as humanly wrenching but nevertheless very telling, is the increasingly tense lockout that threatens the National Basketball Association season. The commissioner, David Stern, gave the players' union a Wednesday deadline to capitulate. Yes, it's "Millionaires vs. Billionaires" and it is easy to say "a pox on both their houses." But the dynamics of their struggle are much like those that have prompted protests in the streets against economic injustice.

Frazier's magnificent moment was the "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975 against Muhammad Ali. After splitting his first two fights with Ali, Frazier lost the third.

Frazier's trainer wouldn't let his damaged fighter leave the corner for the fifteenth and final round. Even watching that fight was painful -- and riveting. Both men were past their prime but evenly matched, with savvy and pride. Neither was ever the same afterward.

On the website of The New Yorker, David Remnick wrote that Ali looked at Frazier in the seventh round and said: "Old Joe Frazier, why I thought you were washed up."

To this, Frazier replied: "Somebody told you all wrong, pretty boy."

Ali, despite his charisma, had a mean streak. His racialist taunting of Frazier (he called him a "gorilla") calls to mind the bullying of schoolchildren that is finally now recognized as so dangerous it can lead to suicide.

Have you ever worked in an environment where a competitor gets undue accolades by schmoozing, bamboozling and charming people while denigrating you? The media loved Ali and Frazier was his foil. It was not fair, but such things are not uncommon.

In their first meeting, Frazier's victory, Frazier dropped Ali with a left hook that began in Philadelphia and landed in Madison Square Garden. Down goes Ali! Down goes Ali! It is a sports moment to savor; I never tire of seeing it, the singular image of glory for the late, great Smokin' Joe.

Another Joe, Paterno, goes by the nickname "JoePa," a fatherly sort of thing. Full disclosure here: I've covered him, I've interviewed him, I like him. Paterno is as charming and intelligent as any coach in any sport. We're both Catholic. He thinks I'm Italian. He calls me "Giuseppe."

Even in his bad moods, Paterno was fun to be around. He liked the spotlight on himself and away from his assistants, men like Jerry Sandusky, charged with abusing eight boys over 15 years.

Paterno learned of one allegation in 2002 and reported it to his superior, the athletic director Tim Curley. But Paterno's excuse for going no further -- that he did not know the specific, sordid details -- comes off as disingenuous.

Paterno is the sort of man who gets the information he wants and avoids learning what he does not want to know. He is 84 years old and has, after 46 seasons, a record total of 409 victories. For years, touting its high graduation rate, Penn State always has bragged about "doing things the right way."

That phrase mocks what took place over more than a decade and gives bitter satisfaction to Big Ten rivals who have chafed under the sanctimonious attitude of the Nittany Lions. If Paterno reported the activity to his bosses in 2002 and they swept it under the rug, why didn't he go to police or higher authorities?

Perhaps he is technically off the hook, legally. But what is his Catholic conscience telling him now? From a more cynical perspective, his departure had to happen. Imagine parents of a high school senior star being recruited by many colleges. Would they send their son to a campus where pre-teen boys were allegedly raped in the locker room of the football team?

The alleged cover-up in State College, Pa., is analogous to the scandal that continues to stain the Catholic Church, a breach of trust between controlling adults and vulnerable children that disgusts and horrifies. What is alleged at Penn State is worse than any recruiting scandal, under-the-table payment or grade-cheating manipulation.

Finally, as for the NBA lockout, consider what you see around you. Madison Square Garden in New York, home of the Knicks, is renovating and gentrifying so that more luxury suites can be sold for even higher prices to people who make a lot of money.

You know the type: The Wall Street crowd, the "One Percent" who snatch a disproportionate share of American wealth. Stern, the commissioner, is the mentor of Gary Bettman, the National Hockey League commissioner who canceled the entire 2004-05 season to slash wages of the players who risk their bodies doing the owners' work.

Don't doubt Stern's willingness to cancel this season. He knows his billionaires can out-last the millionaires and lesser-paid players. He has a whip hand and will gleefully use it.

If the union had any public relations savvy, the stars of the sport would organize pickup games and play them at school gyms and outdoor courts. Invite the public; bring in the television cameras; tell their side of the story.

On the way to and from the games, they might visit the "Occupy" protests across the nation to show support and solidarity.

The basketball players may be taller, more talented and temporarily wealthier than the protestors. But, bottom line, they've got more in common with the 99 percent than with the one percent. They're just another union to be taken down, like Reagan vs. the air controllers and all those public workers fighting Republican governors in the Great Lakes region.

In sum, all three cases -- Frazier, Paterno, the lockout -- are just examples of how sports, inside and outside the arenas, can illuminate the way the real world works.

Like the rich, successful actors who play the broken-down Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, our sports performers act as our avatars and our archetypes, on and off the court, field and ice. Truth sometimes flows through them and sometimes it is a hard truth worth learning.

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