Penn State's bowl: Atone deafness

Everyone did their best, but on a long day of college football it was evident that even the fastest, strongest players couldn't outrun reality. Maybe that was the lesson. Or that Life's Not Fair. Or that money talks but doesn't say much. Maybe the awkwardness and sadness of the TicketCity Atonement Bowl was supposed to provide a teachable moment, when we'd all turn to one another and mumble something about Second Chances. Or Just Deserts. I don't know.

I do know it's possible to feel bad for every coach and player on the Penn State football team who did nothing wrong; to feel empathy for every innocent PSU fan and student; to feel compassion for everyone involved not named Jerry Sandusky -- and still argue that Penn State shouldn't have played in a bowl game.

As was everywhere suggested -- here by my colleague Tim Keown, for example -- Penn State would have done much better to end its football season months ago. Both practically and symbolically, the university stood to gain the world by doing so. Penn State chose to donate an appearance fee instead.

PSU missed its best chance to make a stand on its own behalf: a stand for ethical rigor, a stand against the rot and corruption of an institutional code of silence, a stand for the moral importance of contrition and redemption and community, a stand for proportion and for What Really Matters © and for every character-building platitude ever spoken in defense of the excesses and narcissism of Happy Valley football. A stand against vanity and Mammon. It could rebuild its program and repair its brand in one stroke, and do so by making just one small sacrifice: decline to play a football game. This it did not do.

Other folks seem to agree that a strategic retreat to State College might have been the smarter course. Partial evidence of which was that half-empty stadium down in Texas. Cotton Bowl capacity is 92,000. Announced attendance on Monday was 46,817. It looked frankly less. Even the most devoted football fan knows that the best answer to what smells like a systemic football problem might not be the playing of more football.

To the extent that a G-rated entertainment can even talk about the serial rape of children, the game broadcast early on did its best to sketch the Sandusky case and its likely consequences. This rang down a long, cold shadow across the whole afternoon. Not a quarter passed but that some further sadness or darkness was summoned. The coaching search was mentioned a couple of times, too; and because coaches come and go, the sound of the names and the onscreen thumbnails of likely replacements felt comforting and familiar -- until a sixteenth of a second later when it hit you again why Penn State needs a new coach in the first place.

The effect of talking about all this was to make it apparent that it was impossible to talk about.

Television historically, especially sports television -- which pays, of course, for my splendid coat of many colors -- just doesn't have the language. Or the time. Or the luxury of unencumbered curiosity. No matter how honestly or disingenuously the question "How do you feel?" is asked, in the self-censoring "reality" of a football broadcast, it never generates much of an answer. Sometimes you can make a guy cry, sure, and everyone counts the slow zoom into his welling eyes a victory for journalism and sensitivity and catharsis. But make no mistake: Since the invention of the medium, televised sporting events are meant to be an upbeat unreality; a happy and well-choreographed distraction. Even the moments of deepest despair are sentimentalized and repackaged as uplift clearly labeled "Triumph Over Adversity." The sponsors count upon this. As do you and I.

(As an aside, this is why the media rendering of the Sandusky scandal so often takes on the weirdly passive, reverential tone of a report from a natural disaster -- as if something unintentional happened, something collapsed, something fell without volition. Force majeure. Act of God. We play it that way because it's one of the few grown-up registers on the toy piano.)

My usual worry is that, as a species, we'll wander so far down the rabbit hole of these distractions that we never find our way back. In fact, that's probably already happened.

So it was interesting -- and strangely bracing -- to me that the intrusion of this horror story and its unmanageable narrative was powerful enough to break down the conventions and expectations and clichés of a bowl day football game. In a sparkly universe where everything deforms itself very quietly and politely around the dead planetary pull of money, it was remarkable to feel myself feeling anything at all.

It's important to be reminded of ourselves from time to time, I guess, however charged the shock, however rude the truth. However unflattering the mirror or impenetrable the lesson.

What have we learned?

That on January 2, 2012, the University of Houston Cougars won the TicketCity Bowl. They beat the Nittany Lions of Penn State University 30-14. Everyone did their best.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.