I’ve been watching the football personnel drama at Penn State, wondering who will stay and who will go.
Because of the severe NCAA sanctions given the program in the wake of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes against children and the administration’s cover-up of those crimes — all in the name of gridiron glory — players have the freedom to transfer to another school.
And not just the freedom.
With Penn State facing a four-year bowl-game ban and a reduction in the number of scholarships it can offer — meaning more losses than the team is used to — the players also have reason to leave.
The real question is, do any of them have reason to stay?
If players believe, as some have said, that the school is getting a bum rap in the media, that there is — despite Sandusky — something honorable and favorably unique about the Penn State program, by staying they can indicate that belief not just in word, but in deed.
Then there’s this: Loyalty, steadfastness and self-sacrifice can be seductive ideals.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
That’s Shakespeare’s Henry V, whose words have been rattling around my brain since I recently watched the 1989 Kenneth Branagh’s film version of the play. It contains possibly the greatest speech ever written for a desperate situation, the best ever penned to give courage to those facing long odds.
The play is set in 1415. On the eve of the battle of Agincourt, Henry’s invasion force is facing seeming inevitable destruction at the hands of much larger French army.
When one of his top commanders wishes aloud for reinforcements from England. Henry responds:
“No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.”
In fact, Henry says, anyone who doesn’t have the stomach for the fight is welcome to leave. He’ll even pay for his passage back home.
Finally, stressing how esteemed they would be in victory because of their depleted state, how well they would be remembered, Henry ends his oration with the famous words:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother …
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.”
In the play, as in the actual battle, the English not only stay together to fight, but produce a stunning, gory victory.
Cold type doesn’t do the speech justice. Properly delivered, Shakespeare’s words are … well, go to YouTube, hear them for yourself and supply your own adjective.
I played the speech for my wife, who said, “God, it gives one goose bumps.”
Loyalty, steadfastness, self-sacrifice — prettily wrapped and delivered from the pen of William Shakespeare — will do that.
But ultimately the words spoken in the play, as beautiful and rousing as they are, and whatever the real Henry’s words were — he reportedly did give a speech the day of battle — were in the service of what?
Nothing more noble than Henry’s personal ambition — he coveted the throne of France.
Getting back to Penn State, Michael Zordich did his best to channel Henry when he announced that a group of 30 players had pledged to stay, to bring some truth to the school’s motto of “Success with Honor.”
“We want to let the nation know that we’re proud of who we are,” the senior fullback said. “We’re the true Penn Staters, and we’re going to stick together through this. We’re going to see this thing through, and we’re going to do everything we can for the university. We know it’s not going to be easy, but we know what we’re made of.”
He also said, “We’re going to do everything in our power to get this place back on track. I’m personally calling out every member of Nittany Nation — all the students, faculty, fans and family members, alumni, everything that there is. Please, please come support us through this, because we need you just as much as you need us. And together we’re going to get through this thing to the end.”
Not Shakespeare, but not bad.
But, again, ultimately in the service of what? Trying to rebuild the myth of the righteousness of Penn State football? Isn’t the attempt to protect that myth one of the reasons people looked the other way when horrible things were being done?
And yet, reflexively, I find myself thinking more of the players who are staying than those who are leaving.
I’m not sure what to make of that.
Contact Jim Gordon at email@example.com.