Raw Deal for Franco Harris

The former Penn State star may not have had a popular opinion about Joe Paterno's firing. But he had the right to express it.

During a 12-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a brilliant tenure that landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, running back Franco Harris was frequently criticized by the throaty local fans for often ducking to the sideline at the end of a long run, rather than giving up his body and trying to bull through a defender.

In the matter of the ongoing Penn State scandal, Harris, a former Nittany Lions star who has maintained his passion for his alma mater and loyalty for coach Joe Paterno in particular, apparently stepped out of bounds as well.

At least in the opinion of the folks who own and operate The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, a harness track about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh.

On Tuesday, officials from The Meadows announced that Harris and the track had "mutually decided to put their business relationship on hold." Which is a polite but hardly subtle way of saying that Harris -- hired in October, along with fellow former Steelers star and onetime backfield mate Rocky Bleier, as a pitchman for the track -- had been fired for his comments about the Penn State situation.

In essence, track executives turned back the clock nearly 40 years and penalized Harris, as Steelers fans used to do with their derisive catcalls, for crossing the line in their estimation.

Whether one agrees with Harris or not -- and, make no mistake, the Penn State scandal is a hot-button issue in Western Pennsylvania, where the local media has reported on it closely and often admirably -- the actions of The Meadows officials are notably regrettable.

As repulsive and misguided as Harris may have been to some people, he was entitled to his opinion, no matter how impolitic.

At the same time, however, his remarks accentuate at least two realities: Celebrities, even those retired for more than a quarter century (Harris played the 1984 NFL season, unceremoniously, with the Seattle Seahawks), are often held to a higher standard. And the fallout from the allegations surrounding Jerry Sandusky -- which already have claimed an iconic coach, a university president, the president of the charity founded by the onetime Penn State defensive coordinator, and perhaps the assistant coach who claimed he witnessed one of Sandusky's unthinkable indiscretions -- has not yet settled.

Not by a long shot.

Count Harris, at least indirectly, as one of the unwitting losers. Yeah, we were going to employ the term "victims," but that seemed inappropriate and even unsavory in light of what some young men allegedly suffered.

Harris, 61, opined publicly that the Penn State board of trustees "made a bad decision" with its dismissal of Paterno. He noted that he was "disappointed" in the board and that school officials possessed "no courage." Take a poll of the people who are keenly interested in the Penn State case, or at least those with strong opinions, and Harris' views would almost certainly be on the short end of the survey. That does not, however, diminish Harris' right to his opinion.

Former NBA star Charles Barkley years ago was pilloried for attempting to dodge the label of role model. Whether or not he was correct in so doing is a matter for debate at another time. But it's clear from the actions of The Meadows on Tuesday that a lot of important people feel the sentiments of sports heroes perhaps hold an inordinate amount of weight.

And that the weight dragged down Harris, or at least his ability to lure bettors to the gaming windows and slot machines of their establishment.

Over the last several days, even though college football matters are hardly the area of expertise for this columnist, we waded into the unfamiliar bailiwick and reached out to current and past NFL players with Penn State ties for their thoughts on the unfolding scandal at their school. And now, in light of the action by The Meadows in jettisoning Harris as a very conspicuous mouthpiece, we understand a lot better the preference of many of the players to comment only for non-attribution.

Given the number of players Penn State and the Paterno program have dispatched to the NFL, the percentage of those who have publicly commented on the matter has been negligible. In fact, the silence has been relatively deafening, and in the wake of the Harris dismissal, is likely to remain that way.

And it's too bad that the voices of the people who know Paterno and Sandusky the best probably won't be heard.

A successful businessman who has retained close ties to the Pittsburgh community -- heck, his son even ran for mayor a few years ago -- Harris almost certainly didn't need whatever modest stipend with which The Meadows was rewarding him. But he certainly didn't need, either, the turmoil surrounding the Penn State affair.

Somewhat anathema to those long-ago critics who lambasted Harris for stepping out of bounds, he didn't tiptoe around the Penn State issue. He did what the Harris bashers of 40 years ago accused him of seldom doing -- taking a challenge head-on. And in doing so, he was hit for a loss.

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