American Culture

A note to the Penn State community: We support you

I love sports and have my whole life. Ask anyone who knows me. But thanks to my upbringing, I have never been one to lose perspective where athletics are concerned. My grandparents never let me think for a second, for instance, that playing was as important as studying and the lesson stuck. The state of big money college sports appalls me. That our society clearly values the contributions of jocks more than it does educators explains a lot about why we find ourselves in the predicament we’re in politically and economically. Millionaires and billionaires being unable to figure out a way to divvy up the GDP of Barbados has gotten so commonplace that you wonder why it’s even news.

So the Penn State sex abuse scandal, which last night claimed the jobs of university president Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno, at some level feels like more of the same. Sure, it involves a school that has historically run a clean athletics program (as far as we know). And the most visible player in the drama is hardly a fly-by-night with a suitcase full of cash. Unless you’re at least in your 70s, you have no real memory of a Nittany Lion football game without Joe Paterno on the sidelines. We toss terms like “epic” and “icon”around pretty casually these days, but JoePa is, by any definition, a legitimate sports icon. When you hear an outraged student being interviewed on ESPN saying that Paterno is Penn State football, that student is right. He or she may be wrong about a great many other things, of course…

In 2003, the St. Bonaventure University community was rocked by what OnlineColleges.net ranks as the seventh worst scandal in American collegiate sports history. I joined the faculty of that university the following year, after the school had cleaned house. I hadn’t paid much attention to the uproar when it happened. I knew about the Bonnies’ proud history, but a scandal at a small school in the A-10? Eh.

I arrived on campus, though, and began to meet people. The subject came up – invariably. I had a PhD from the University of Colorado, which was just above SBU at #6 on that list, providing a nice topic for polite conversation. I quickly came to understand that what had happened the previous year was more than just a little dustup in the hoops program. I realized that it had taken a serious emotional toll on the entire community, and you didn’t have to be a basketball freak to be affected. It was so bad that the chairman of the SBU board of trustees had taken his own life.

In short, the members of that community were in mourning. A couple of stupid people, trusted leaders who should have known better, decided to play fast and loose with a university’s reputation (and in that community, Bonas is the absolute center of the community’s life). When things blew up, people who prided themselves on character and integrity felt humiliated in front of the nation.

What happened in Olean, New York in 2003, of course, wasn’t a fraction as bad as what the Penn State community has to confront, though. It’s sort of like dealing with the loss of your beloved grandfather, except that your grandfather probably wasn’t complicit in covering for a pedophile.

I know a lot of people with Penn State ties (including my close friend Brian Angliss, one of the co-founders here at S&R). Some are obviously hurting, others are enraged, but all are stunned. All feel betrayed, and I don’t think any of them can quite believe that the institution they have always been so proud of is now a 24/7 media spectacle because one of its coaches is alleged to have been the lowest of the low and that the men entrusted with the integrity of the school’s most visible arm chose, at most, to live up only to their basic legal obligations.

I don’t think PSU is an outstanding institution because of its football program or because of the legacy of Joe Paterno. I think it because of the quality of the human beings that the school has produced. And because of that, I know this community will bounce back better than ever. Yes, St. Bonaventure and the University of Colorado, along with the Duke lacrosse team and the Georgia basketball team and the SMU football program, which was the first to receive the NCAA’s “death penalty,” and the other five schools on that list of infamy will all be moving down a notch, because what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did and what his superiors allegedly enabled is hands-down worse, by far, than any other scandal in American sports history. But the university will redeem itself.

In the meantime, I offer my condolences to all the men and women of character and integrity who are or have been associated with Penn State. I know you’re suffering in ways that most people around you don’t fully understand. And I know most of you are further bewildered by the behavior of some of the students last night.

But we don’t judge the school according to a few bad examples. All schools have those. We judge the school, instead, by you, and by that standard you should feel tremendous pride.

13 replies »

  1. An oddity that the prosecutor pointed out today – the trustees fired the university president and Joe Paterno (and Paterno has been a cooperating witness), but haven’t fired and are paying the legal bills for the vice-president and assistant coach who have been charged with a crime.

    As if this could get more screwed up.

  2. The charges against Sandusky are abominable–and if determined to be true, the guys deserves his own special ring of Hell. But alas, the media has chosen to already convict him, regardless of how many “allegedly’s” they use. Paterno, by association, is apparently guilty, too. I would never speak up to defend Sandusky, but Paterno has been given the railroad treatment by an outraged public and a delighted, faux-outraged media. The legal process presupposes innocence until proven guilty. The rest of us, apparently, don’t.

  3. I appreciate your condolences and concerns for those who are associated with Penn State; it is true they are deeply hurting and quite frankly embarrassed. However, you fail to mention the victims of this horrendous crime. I also agree that Joe Paterno’s firing is a mistake and only an effort to take the spotlight off those truly guilty – but we must remember the victims and their families and pray for their peace and ability to live a fulfilling happy life.

    • Amy: I spoke re: the victims in a previous post. And I have no idea who you’re agreeing with – nobody here has argued that Paterno’s firing was a mistake.

  4. The grand jury’s job is to examine the evidence and determine if there’s enough merit to bring the case to trial–but that’s still not a conviction. I’m frustrated that the media has circumvented due process.

    • Again, so you believe that everybody should still be on the job. And, if I take you literally, this means that Sandusky should still have his office on campus and full access to the facilities.

      I rarely defend the media, but what would you have them do?

  5. That anonymous post was me (don’t want to seem like I wasn’t standing behind my opinions by posting anonymously).

    No, I don’t necessarily think everyone should be on the job. But I would wager that, given his decades of service, JoePa should probably have been given the benefit of the doubt. As he himself admitted, “I probably should have done more,” so even he obviously feels a degree of moral if not legal culpability. But that doesn’t excuse the feeding frenzy.

    We spend a whole lot of time at S&R lamenting the fact that the system fails us. The triumph of mob rule is a clear instance of us failing the system.

    • Chris, I don’t disagree with the principle. But the grand jury report is beyond damning.

      I’m not defending the media’s behavior any more than I would the behavior of those students the other night. I think both of my posts here have been pretty tightly contextualized, though. Spanier needed to go, Paterno needed to go, McQueary needs to go, too, as does everyone else who had knowledge of what happened and didn’t go to the police. There are moral reasons, there are legal reasons, and as I explained in my first post, there are football reasons. “I probably should have done more” goes down as the understatement of the century so far.

      I see no evidence ANYWHERE of mob rule triumphing in this case. The mob I see on my TV is one that’s pissed because it ISN’T triumphing. While media coverage has been way the hell over the top (and I’m on the road in a hotel room, so I’ve seen lots of ESPN in the last couple of days) I’ve actually been stunned by how responsible the tone has been. I’d have expected more of the football fraternity to be closing ranks behind Paterno, but it hasn’t happened.

  6. The thing that bothers me most about this is how the story has become all about Coach Paterno and not about the victims .But I suffer from a kind of guilt-sorrow in all this. I feel guilty that I feel sorry, not for Coach Paterno, but for all the assistents and managers and trainers, because they will all have to go if Penn State wants to really start over with a clean slate. But I feel guilty that I feel sorry for them.This whole terrible story is almost too big to put into words, and the more I write about it, the more guilty I feel.

    • I don’t know that there’s any way to feel but wrong. Any sentiment you express for anyone other than the victims will be used against you by someone, even if you have expressly made clear that those kids are the ones who we should be most concerned about. If you’re part of the PSU community you’re going to feel betrayed and humiliated that this was done by somebody at an institution with which you’re affiliated. If you’re in any way associated with the athletics machine in this country and you have a brain and a soul you can’t but be aware of the fact that the culture of privilege surrounding the system certainly provides opportunities for abusers that may not exist for your regular old garden-variety abuser.

      And on and on.

      The only silver lining I can imagine is that maybe the publicity around this case will cause somebody out there to think twice about something they may have seen, a person who behaves in a way that suggests he or she may be up to something. I don’t know. Maybe this case helps us do a better job of putting two and two together, to the benefit of current or future abuse victims.

      Right now that seems kind of distant and vague, but it’s all I’ve got.

  7. I read a comment on Facebook yesterday that every community has members who are flat-out evil, no matter how pure it appears to be. But the actions of those evil people don’t necessarily cast a shadow over the whole community. Just as I can’t blame the citizens of Iran or Israel for the actions of their governments, just as I wouldn’t let others blame every American for the actions of President Bush II, so too I won’t let others blame every Penn State student and alum for the actions of the university president or the athletic program.

    Something we all need to remember is this – Penn State is more than it’s football program, more than the actions of an abuser or the people who enabled his abuse, more than a university president and vice-president who turned a blind eye. Fire everyone in the football program, purge the university administration, strip away the entire athletic program if the evidence warrants it. Whatever happens, I still had four exciting, horrible, awesome, depressing, and wild years at Penn State, and nothing anyone does can take those experiences away from me.

  8. There is a moral code that applies when a person in power knows that another person is abusing his or her authority and power. There an ethic of duty to make sure that an abuser, though they might be a friend, faces the consequences of his or her actions. The firings occurred because people in power did not uphold their ethic of duty.

    I agree with you, Sam, that the tragedy at Penn State might cause people to ask themselves important questions about what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation.

    I just can’t imagine what it must have been like for the victims. What would it feel like to know that someone actually saw the abuse take place, but didn’t step in to stop it? It must be the worst feeling in the world. Far, far worse than being fired from a job.