There are many excellent small liberal arts colleges – universities actually – from Maine to the Chicago area and down into the Old South. And they provide a fine education. But with an average of perhaps two thousand undergraduate students enrolled and on campus at any one time, you do miss some of the big-time stuff, like a massive football program, with that big stadium filled with sixty-thousand fans on a Saturday afternoon, and the giant marching band at halftime doing all those odd things peculiar to that all-American folk-art form. And there are the associated rituals – bonfires and elaborate pranks and tailgate parties and all the rest. And out here in Los Angeles, the sports section in the Los Angeles Times from August through January devotes two full pages each day to UCLA football, and two full pages to USC football. There are a lot of alumni. They follow such things.
But at that small liberal arts college in Ohio, all those years ago, maybe a few hundred people would show up to watch the Saturday football game – if that many. They’d show up out of idle curiosity, or real curiosity. But the numbers were small. And no, that wasn’t because it was the late sixties and all the hippies, everywhere you looked at the time, scoffed at football. They didn’t. Football just wasn’t a big deal. On a good Saturday it was an interesting game, played well. And that’s fine. But it was just another interesting thing to watch. It wasn’t life or death or anything. Enthusiasm was often appropriate. Emotional involvement seemed absurd. It’s a matter of perspective.
Things should have been different a few years later with graduate school at Duke. Duke was and is a large and rich big-time top university, with the big stadium and everything. But Duke is a basketball school – they go nuts for that. Football is an afterthought. They haven’t had a winning football season in decades, and no one seems to mind all that much. But really, either way, football or basketball, being all excited about such things is for the intense and energetic underclassmen, and rich alumni, not dour grad students. Again, it’s a matter of perspective.
And given all that, there are those of us who are a little taken aback by what just happened at Penn State:
After top Penn State officials announced that they had fired Joe Paterno on Wednesday night, thousands of students stormed the downtown area to display their anger and frustration, chanting the former coach’s name, tearing down light poles and overturning a television news van parked along College Avenue.
The demonstrators congregated outside Penn State’s administration building before stampeding into the tight grid of downtown streets. They turned their ire on a news van, a symbolic gesture that expressed a view held by many: that the news media had exaggerated Mr. Paterno’s role in the scandal surrounding accusations that a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, sexually assaulted young boys.
The head coach had known for years that this guy was sexually assaulting young boys, for years, and sort of mentioned it on up the line, and then just went about his business. That seems rather appalling. He should go. But something else is at play here:
“I think the point people are trying to make is the media is responsible for JoePa going down,” said a freshman, Mike Clark, 18, adding that he believed that Mr. Paterno had met his legal and moral responsibilities by telling university authorities about an accusation that Mr. Sandusky assaulted a boy in a university shower in 2002.
Demonstrators tore down two lampposts, one falling into a crowd. They also threw rocks and fireworks at the police, who responded with pepper spray. The crowd undulated like an accordion, with the students crowding the police and the officers pushing them back.
“We got rowdy, and we got Maced,” said Jeff Heim, 19, rubbing his red, teary eyes. “But make no mistake – the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend.”
No, the legend tarnished the legend. Paterno let the guy keep doing the dirty to ten-year-old boys, for years and years and years. But that too is a matter of perspective. What do we even mean when we talk of living people as legends? Maybe that means we should reconfigure our perspective, reducing the reality inputs, and dialing-up some unconditional awe. If so, then you scream about the unfair media.
But there’s always a morning after:
Only a few hours after a raucous downtown protest following the firing of Joe Paterno, the Penn State campus took on a funereal feel Thursday, with students struggling to come to grips with the magnitude of a sexual abuse scandal that has shaken this college town to its core. Students returned to campus on an overcast, chilly day to find that examinations had been canceled in some classes. Lectures instead became impromptu group therapy sessions where students discussed their emotional reaction to the news from Wednesday night.
It seems the student body president issued a call for unity and peace on campus – he said they have questions, and they want answers, and they won’t stop until they get those answers – but maybe mayhem wouldn’t get them anywhere. But it’s clear that they don’t really have the questions worked out yet:
While the longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was introduced as Penn State’s interim head coach, many students were still discussing Paterno’s departure as they talked on their cellphones or to each other while walking across a mostly quiet campus. The anger over Wednesday’s announcement seemed to have morphed into sadness and confusion for many students, a significant percentage of which did not believe Paterno should have been fired. Many students wore Penn State T-shirts or football jerseys, but the mood was anything but celebratory.
“It’s like a mass 45,000-person funeral,” said Bree Feibischoff, a 20-year-old junior from Marlboro, N.J.
Well, the normal is gone. The Penn State football team, the 12th-ranked team in the nation, will play 19th-ranked Nebraska on Saturday. But why – what’s the point?
Well, it has something to do with this:
The stunning end to Paterno’s 46-year tenure has given rise to complex emotions at a university inextricably connected to the coach. And because Paterno, who has more victories than any major college football coach, was for many the embodiment of the university and its values, the scandal surrounding the football team has affected some students’ view of the institution. The front window of a clothing store downtown had a painting of the Nittany Lion logo shedding a tear.
“Penn State students invest an extraordinary amount of energy into this school,” Sam Richards, a senior lecturer in sociology, said during a lecture Thursday. “It’s not just Penn State. This is my identity.”
It is? That may be the problem, but the man is working on it:
Richards dedicated his 700-plus seat class on race and ethnic relations to addressing the situation facing the community. The lecture was titled “Group Think, Personal Responsibility and the Breakdown of Moral Order: The Crisis at Penn State.”
The huge theater-style classroom where the lecture was held was filled with students, some of whom were not enrolled in the class. With the seats mostly filled, students sat in the aisles and stood in the back of the room. Richards started off by offering students the opportunity to stand and describe their emotions.
“I feel distraught,” the first said. Others said they were betrayed, embarrassed, heartbroken, sad, frustrated, lost and numb. All of those words seemed to encapsulate the mood on campus as Penn State started the long process toward developing a new sense of normal.
Normal is where football is not the issue, and the issue is the sexual assault, the rape of children. It’s again a matter of perspective.
Of course there is this perspective:
Beyond the human tragedy of the child abuse scandal engulfing Penn State football, there is a significant financial cost that is likely to be suffered by one of the most lucrative sports teams in the country.
Its revenue of $72.7 million from football last season was the fifth highest of any college program in the country, according to a CNNMoney analysis of figures reported by each school to the Department of Education.
And when comparing revenue to total expenses, Penn State football’s profit of $53.2 million was second only to the University of Texas’ total of $71.2 million.
The students have their fragile identities to worry about. The university has other quite separate issues here.
But it does come down to stories like this:
A Penn State assistant football coach who reportedly told Joe Paterno in 2002 he witnessed a young boy being sexually assaulted in a shower won’t be at Saturday’s Nebraska game because of “multiple threats,” the university athletics website said Thursday night.
A graduate assistant at the time, Mike McQueary told a grand jury he had witnessed former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, now 67, assaulting the boy at the campus football complex.
Questions over how university officials responded to reports of alleged abuse cost coaching legend Paterno and university President Graham Spanier their jobs. McQueary has been criticized for not calling police, but he has not faced any legal charges.
According to a grand jury report, the graduate assistant entered a locker room on a Friday night in 2002 to stow away some sneakers.
“As the graduate student entered the locker room doors, he was surprised to find the lights and showers on,” the grand jury report stated. “He then heard rhythmic, slapping sounds.”
The assistant looked into the shower and “saw a naked boy … whose age he estimated to be 10 years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky,” the grand jury report stated.
The graduate assistant reported the incident to Paterno, who in turn alerted Athletic Director Timothy Curley, Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said earlier this week.
He did not intervene. He did not go to the cops himself. He told Coach Paterno, perhaps being a bit delicate about how he put things, as Sandusky too was a legend at the time, and Paterno’s good friend. And this witness has still got his job, which is odd.
But the problem in discussing this might be in putting things too delicately, as Buzz Bissinger explains:
We need to stop the daintiness and describe the alleged offenses for what they truly are in the vernacular to somehow try to capture the monstrousness. Not anal intercourse or oral sex, which sounds clinical, but butt-fucking and blowjobs and cock-grabbing and pants-groping and other assorted acts that the 67-year-old Sandusky allegedly inflicted on eight minor victims over a 15-year span, according to the 23-page grand-jury report, and resulted in 40 counts of serial sex abuse of minors.
What? You wanted to talk about football? And Andrew Sullivan offers an interesting aside:
I might add that using the term “impropriety” to describe what was at issue in legal settlements regarding Herman Cain is also a cop-out. He is charged with sexual abuse of power and sexual assault. And his indifference to these charges springs from the same sense of privileged entitlement that marks the despicable leadership of Penn State’s football team.
But it is leadership, of a kind, and Penn State alumnus Michael Weinreb gets to the heart of it:
On the front page of my old college newspaper, a senior marketing major named Andrew Hanselman said this: “Being accepted to Penn State felt like a family, and Joe Paterno was the father.” Well, we’re on our own now, Andrew. It’s time to grow up.
And Andrew Sullivan takes it from there:
Does anyone not see the extraordinary ironies and parallels here? Yes, this is a classic “father” figure, like a priest or bishop or Pope. The man is even called “Paterno”. And what Paterno did is what the current Pontiff did when he was an archbishop in Munich, where he was told of a priest under his jurisdiction who had raped children. He didn’t alert the police; he merely sent the rapist on to a psychiatrist and the man went on to rape many more children. And we might as well face it: college football is a kind of religion for many. Challenging the Pope of Penn State was unthinkable.
And that is the analogy:
I regard the current actual Pope as an accessory to child-rape, as I do Paterno. But their paternal authority within religious institutions allowed them to carry on. And this is another thing one can say about this profoundly fucked-up culture of abuse: once condoned or treated lightly, the abuses often get worse and worse.
And Sullivan is not surprised that Mark Madden is now hearing rumors that Sandusky was “pimping out young boys to rich donors.” Sullivan says pedophiles find each other. But maybe this also has to do with the big money in all this, and keeping rich donors happy. Either way, Sullivan is right about Paterno and the Pope:
All they need is for good people to look the other way. And a cult of authority that never challenges the father figure.
Well, at least the Pope gets cool hats to wear. But coaching hats aside, over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Tod Kelley also connects the Penn State cover-up to the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals:
In his book Losing My Religion, William Lobdell writes about his experience covering a local Catholic Church child abuse scandal for the LA Times. One of the most fascinating – and terrifying – parts of his account is the meetings of parishioners once the Church had confirmed that the abuse had happened, that it had been going on for a long time, and that it had been known about by the Church leaders. (In fact, if I recall correctly, the abuser was sent to their church after having been caught abusing children in his previous church.) The outraged parents rose up – but not how you might think. The people they blamed for the travesty were not the leaders of the church, or even the priest that abused their children – who was quite popular. Instead, they blamed the media. Given the choice between crucifying the reporters who were writing about a very serious crime, or getting rid of a priest that betrayed their community in the worst way possible, they rallied around the priest.
Yep, that just happened at Penn State too. And Jessica Banks, another Penn State alum, extends the parallel:
Most of [the Penn State students] are going to graduate twenty to fifty thousand dollars in debt, much more than they would pay to go to one of the many Commonwealth Campuses across Pennsylvania. Part of what they’re paying for is the experience in State College, and for almost 50 years, that experience depends on having a team to be proud of, and a school that others admire. It’s their reputation, too, that’s been destroyed, without consent or knowledge. Firing Joe Paterno was the only legitimate action that Penn State could take, but to kids and alumni, that’s an admission of guilt that’s on par with having to admit that the Pope is no longer infallible.
And there’s Alyssa Rosenberg with this:
I cannot possibly imagine a cause so mighty and righteous that it outweighs shrugging aside child abuse and child assault. Certainly not football. College sports may be a business with deeply engaged consumers. But it’s still just a business. And Joe Paterno is just a man, subject to the normal rules of accountability and decency. These are the basic facts of which moral educations are made. Some of us, apparently, need remedial lessons.
And Sullivan comments on that:
I think Alyssa is unfamiliar with the sacred aspect of college football to so many. As one reader noted, if a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry had been found in the showers buggering a ten-year-old, the cops would have been called immediately. But an assistant coach and likely successor to the great Paterno? Immune.
And Sullivan cites Ari Kohen on that immunity notion:
Because he’s famous, because we know a lot about him, Paterno gives us someone upon whom we can focus our anger. In no small part, this because he seems to have done the morally wrong thing in this case by not coming forward himself (and thereby enabling the abuser). But that wrong undoubtedly pales in comparison to the moral and legal wrongs committed by university officials and, most of all, by Sandusky. No one’s going to hold a rally or overturn cars on behalf of the ousted university administrators or former assistant coach because those people are unknown to us, because they seem like replaceable parts, and because – of course – they seem to have committed a series of terrible acts.
And they are going to face a trial. Paterno, apparently, isn’t. And his comments on his “sadness” were enraging. He’s sad that many other children were subjected to this abuse and violence? Sad?
Sullivan says if you think he’s “getting excitable” about this, just go read the Grand Jury report – then tell Andrew Sullivan to calm down.
No, there is no need to calm down. It is all a matter of perspective. And note that this isn’t a sports scandal – no one shaved points, no college athletes were paid under the table or got fancy cars or loose women, and no bookies and gangsters were involved. This wasn’t even about football. But the point may be that nothing ever is. With college football, enthusiasm is often appropriate. Emotional involvement is inherently absurd. And this was about something else entirely – about a man who raped kids, and about those who let him do it for years.
What? You wanted to talk about football?