“Hey, Paterno’s been fired.”
The salacious and horrific nature of the allegations were notable enough, but their presence in the context of the PSU program was what elevated the story to stratospheric-levels. Paterno and PSU had built a “brand” of integrity and honor unrivaled anywhere else in major college sports. To see such a well-perceived institution involved in the most heinous of acts drew attention beyond that which would normally occur.
Humans notice when an ivory tower crumbles. In other words, we’re suckers for when the self-righteously high and mighty are humbled.
Buckeye fans had a small taste of this when our goody-two-shoes Senator Sweatervest was forced to resign, and the blue-and-white disciples of all things JoePa were first in line to serve up a dish of crow.
OSU supporters were subjected to the faux righteous indignation of a school and its fans that boasted ethical integrity while ignoring their own shortcomings: brutal physical assaults on guest fans, “urine bomb” attacks on opposing schools’ marching bands, 46 players racking up 163 criminal charges from 2002-2008 alone, and even murder, just to name a few.
That the players and fans were engaging in all these activities at the same time their coaches and administrators were allegedly engaging in and covering up pedophilia is all you need to know about the real Penn State culture versus the false, idealized Penn State brand.
But reality rarely matters. Humans like to see high-profile figures fall because that allows us to assuage our own internal resentment towards social hierarchies. Yes, the same cognitive process at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement is what causes human beings to crave seeing their mighty opposers fall.
That tendency also causes a rational blindness that makes humans tend to support their own ivory tower inhabitants, regardless of whether support is actually deserved. What’s more inappropriate than large crowds rioting in support of Joe Paterno?
Now, perhaps one can argue that Joe does deserve support; perhaps he does deserve acknowledgement of his legendary status and of his role in college football history.
But the difference is that those of us disconnected from the fanatical fervor are rational enough to know that there is a time for such things, and that time is NOT NOW. Those mobbing acolytes are doing nothing but disrespecting Sandusky’s victims. They should be ashamed.
Years from now, when the anger wears off and the maturity of adulthood has deepened, will those rioters realize that they were knocking down lampposts and turning over news vans in defense of the right to cover up pedophilia?
The same shame should be felt by the thousands of anonymous Internet supporters of Penn State and Joe Paterno. Posting in forums, you can tell who they are as they White-Knight their Grand Leader with reasonings like: “hey let’s all remember these are only allegations;” “Paterno didn’t do anything illegal, here, he’s just a scapegoat;” “We’re protected from NCAA violations, not like Tressel;” and the absolute worst, “obviously I feel bad for the victims BUT…”
In fact, one can argue that this type of devotion reveals an even-more-damning question: do these supporters share a certain level of responsibility here? The primary motivation for the alleged coverup was the protection of the Paterno and Penn State brand. That brand has now been exposed as a toxic illusion. But was Penn State nation (as a generalism) playing the role of “enabler” to some extent?
The JoePa Tower can’t be built without the mortar of abject irrational support.
He had to go. Not only for the moral aspects of it, but he gave the PSU Board of Trustees no choice. They are chartered with protecting the university, and Paterno had become a terrible liability to them. They did everything they could to keep him from speaking: they canceled his press conference, they surrounded him with protection, they ushered him into cars and chauffeured him to practice. They bent over backwards to keep him quiet.
But it was more important for Paterno to be heard than to protect his university. He was visibly upset that his press conference was canceled. He opened his windows at night and chatted with the crowd. And finally, after the Board was initially willing to discuss his retirement at the end of the season, he issues a statement saying “I wish I had done more.” Six words that will cost the university millions when they are (rightfully) used by the victims’ lawyers in the years to come. But just like in 2002, Paterno thought of no one but himself.
And it’s only just beginning for the PSU Board. Yesterday’s news that the Federal Government was initiating an investigation, on the basis of potential violations of the Clery Act, was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back.
For those suggesting that six decades earns the right not to be fired by phone call, consider that a simple phone call ten years ago might have ended all this before it began.
So while we rack our brains trying to figure out how this all will end, perhaps remembering the bigger picture can be a useful exercise:
It’s just a game, folks.
It’s a game. Played, coached, and watched by human beings. And as human beings, we all share responsibility for one other.
We all have the responsibility to protect innocence. We all have the responsibility to control our level of support for the leaders of any institution we patronize. We all have the responsibility to act courageously, even in the face of awkwardness, danger, or self preservation; because it’s the human thing to do.
Jerry Sandusky fails at humanity, for obvious reasons. But Mike Mcqueary, Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Shultz, and many others failed as well. They failed to courageously defend the innocent.
In contrast, the victims that came forward (and the loved ones that supported them) have real courage. Courage to willingly suffer through the indignity and pain of reliving the most scarring event in one’s life, over and over again in front of strangers, grand jury members, and other authorities. To voluntarily subject yourself to that indignity, all in order to prevent other people from encountering the same suffering as what you endured, takes authentic human courage.
Against that, Paterno & Co. and their rationally-blind supporters are nothing more than cowards. These same hypocrites recite the stanza from the PSU alma mater: “May no act of ours bring shame/to one heart that loves thy name.” (Unless someone’s legacy and agenda gets in the way, apparently.)
At its core, this misery is due to greed and a failure of courage. Greed in one form or another: for personal satisfaction, for power, for money, for status, for 409 wins, for legacy. And cowardice: for being more afraid for oneself than for the innocent, for being more afraid of losing friendships and influence than doing what was right, for fear of being found out that your brand was a sham all along.
So go home, Paterno & Co. And go home, you irrational mob of Paterno acolytes who think a game is more important than anything else. Just go home, sit, and quietly ponder what it means to be human.
Maybe that’s good advice for all of us.