Penn State is going to play a football game on Saturday, and my first reaction is: How?
It's not about a sport anymore, not this week and probably not for the rest of the year, and the 85 players wearing that plain blue and white, not to mention the 100,000 fans who cram into Beaver Stadium, will barely be thinking of screen passes and broken tackles and Leaders Division standings.
The absence of two coaches (Joe Paterno, missing his first Penn State game since 1949, and assistant coach Mike McQueary, who somehow has yet to be held accountable for his own lack of compassion) isn't a subplot, it's the main event. The game will be fraught with different agendas, likely filled with emotional (and potentially conflicting) statements, symbols and gestures, and figures to obscure or even contradict the primary lesson of the past week: that a football program's interests were placed ahead of the welfare of innocent boys.
Maybe Penn State could use a timeout right about now.
College games have been postponed by national tragedy and campus emergency -- the silent Saturday following the Sept. 11 attacks comes to mind -- and while this week's headlines don't have the life-and-death immediacy of a terrorist attack or school shooting, the human tragedy allegedly visited upon those eight or nine children is undeniable. And the raw emotions in play are, too, as witnessed by a thankfully brief riot near campus Thursday night, triggered by Paterno's firing.
The game will go on, however, because the institutional colossus that is college football requires it, because contracts require it. My hope is that it can somehow be cathartic and cleansing for the Happy Valley campus, though that's difficult to imagine.
And my hopes are that the Penn State players, particularly the seniors who will make their final home-field appearance under circumstances they could never have pictured, at least find some semblance of normalcy. I'll not call them victims of this ugly incident, because that would minimize the suffering of the real victims here.
But surely they are casualties of their coaches' and university's misplaced values.
"We feel horrible for the victims and those families, and we think about them all the time," Nittany Lions senior safety Drew Astorino said at a news conference Wednesday. "At the same time, the 125 guys on this team didn't have anything to do with 10 years ago."
True enough, and these Nittany Lions were enjoying a season that was shaping up into something special for an entirely different reason. Penn State is 8-1 and holds a two-game lead in the Leaders Division, albeit with a gauntlet of title contenders remaining in the season's final three weeks: Nebraska on Saturday, then road trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Win two out of three, and the Nittany Lions are in the first Big Ten championship game -- playing for the, ahem, Stagg-Paterno trophy, should the name survive this tumult.
Capture a victory in Indianapolis and -- as Penn State dreams went before last weekend -- Paterno could have capped his career with a second Rose Bowl berth.
The Penn State offense isn't strong enough to pull it off, most analysts believed even before the Jerry Sandusky allegations were revealed; the Nittany Lions score only 19 points per Big Ten game even when their minds are only on football.
The pressure on these players has only multiplied in the past week. Now they are burdened with more than winning a division and going to a bowl game, but with holding together a program that could be reduced to shambles by scandal. All while grappling with their own feelings about the father-figure coach they have lost.
"We'll find a way to heal. We'll find a way to get back on track," Tom Bradley, Paterno's interim successor, promised Thursday. "I'm going to find a way to restore the confidence and start the healing process."
Somehow, that sounds a lot harder than beating the Huskers, Buckeyes and Badgers.