Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky Show the Danger of Making Gods Out of Men

Yesterday, when I walked onto campus, a young man crossed my path, a Penn State undergrad, moving zombie-like down the incline of the walkway, in the opposite direction of me. I had to stop to watch him, his eyes shut closed, a lazy goose step in his gait. The image has been seared into my neurology. Every time I close my eyes, I see him walking away, drained, aimless, his eyes closed, without recourse, without words.

When I arrived at Penn State to begin grad school last summer, I was unfamiliar with things like Joe Pa or Paternoville, the meaning of Blue and White, the chant of “WE ARE PENN STATE.” When I say I was unfamiliar with these codes of collective honor, I don’t mean that I didn’t know them specifically – I had no idea such worlds even existed, generally. I went to a small liberal arts college in Ohio where I was barely aware we had a football team, where individuality was placed far above the idea of the collective, where dissent and cynicism was the code of honor, where there we sneered with disdain and skepticism at athletics or the reverence that surrounded the athletes of our high schools. I thought Football Universities were manufactured settings for Hollywood films. Not real places.

At Penn State, I became instantly intrigued with the myth of Joe Paterno, his godlike status, his place as icon. His image sits on the walls and in the windows of many local shops in the same way that Jesus’ image might be the centerpiece of a devoutly Catholic home. In many ways, I was envious of those who so fully engaged in the ecstatic religious experience that was Penn State football. I have always yearned for that sense of community. I am a woman who constantly looks for ways to find the extraordinary in the ordinary – to make the profane feel sacred. I like the ideal of constructing rituals and myths out of men. It’s what we do best as human beings – something that makes us so fascinating to me. It’s the one thing that I think binds us all together – our love for magical narratives based in real life.

The immense pride that many take in the honor and comport of our football team did not seem dubious or creepy to me at all. I enjoyed what it stood for – I enjoyed watching the narrative that Penn Staters spun around Joe Paterno and his soldiers. I heard that, before games, he would recite the Illiad in ancient Greek to his players, preparing them for the field. I loved that our football team was an allegory for so many great principles: grace under pressure, dignity, composure, and education, especially when athletics always seem to be at odds with education in the master narrative of our land grant universities. Joe Paterno, himself a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, where he studied the Classics (a secret passion of mine), was said to be the most academically aware coach of college football, setting academic standards for his team that unparalleled any other in NCAA Division I sports. That made me proud and gave me material with which to teach. In my English 15 class, we dissected the rhetoric of Penn State football, through which I could teach metaphor and device and argumentation in a way that mattered to the lives of my students. As a writer, I got to see, first hand, how narrative played a real role in the lives of Americans in a way I found profound and elegant. A new spirituality.

Still, I have not yet been to a Penn State football game, nor have I been anywhere near the stadium on game days. I don’t own any Penn State gear. I still see myself as an outsider in this culture, though I appreciate it and have found some pride in it. I have very slowly started to see myself as a part of it.

Then, the horrific news came about Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State coach who was being indicted for the sexual abuse of eight young boys. At first, I looked upon this news like I think many did – an isolated incident about an alleged pedophile who fit the profile of another mythic narrative: that of the monster. And I thought of the many cases I had written about during my stint as a journalist – the stories of men who committed terrifying acts. I always tried to write about these pieces in a way that attempted to understand who these men were and how these things happened, because, the myth of the monster occluded the real point of the problem and didn’t allow us to engage in an understanding of pedophiles that would allow us to try and stop the problem. I read the Sandusky stories looking for these sorts of answers as well.

But then, more news came. And came and came and came and is still coming. Very quickly, I watched the news about Sandusky and his vicious crimes misguidedly morph into headlines about Joe Paterno, Penn State’s God, its beacon of truth, its moral compass. Apparently, he had fallen from grace. The headlines and their accompanying photos suggested to me that Joe Paterno was the criminal here, not Sandusky. And I was curious about this turn events, so I started reading more closely. I read that the 28-year-old graduate assistant who had witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy in the Penn State locker room showers had gone to Paterno with what he saw. I read a lot of “he said, he said” about who said what to whom. I read that Paterno went to his superiors – if a God like Paterno could have superiors – and had the grad assistant tell them what he saw. I read that these superiors did not take this eyewitness to the authorities, but behaved in a way that suggests to many a corrupt cover-up in an attempt to preserve the sanctity of Penn State’s name, even if that still remains to be proven. I read that Paterno, as Penn State’s figurehead, now shouldered the greatest blame because he did not do more – he did not follow up, he did not go to the police, he did not do whatever we like to think we would do in such a situation. For a God, this behavior was dubious and suddenly we had to acknowledge that he was a man, a man with a great deal of power and failed to use it.

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27 comments
Lee Milass
Lee Milass

the thing that got me when the story broke was the initial comment of Paterno and then spanieri.e."these are allegations",and "I stand 100% behind curly and schulz".  WHAT! I then went to the grand jury report-OMG these people did not say one caring thing about the victims.  The public is outraged.  The board finally did the right thing.  My only thought was when did the board first hear of Sandusky problem?And the da-Gricer that first started the investigation who "disappeared" .  This is starting to sound like a mafia hit is somehow involved.     And then Bradley coming on the air telling us what a great guy Paterno was etc.  Give us a break.  Someone got raped in your football locker room and Paterno,shulz&curly decided to just ignore the rapistpedophile on your staff.  Great well a lot of us just can't put it out of our head that easily. We live in simple land and not big bucksville.

Portann
Portann

I am so sorry, but being a too busy to report the rape of a child just doesnt sit well. It is very clear, reading the grand jury indictment, aside from the media hoopla, that there was a pervasive culture of silence that helped perpetuate a sexually criminal atmosphere. The subsequent furor on campus after the story broke and after Paterno was fired says it all. The level of campus backlash is in direct proportion to the investment that was made in concealing this filth for the sake of the reputation of the university.

Suzenjohnson
Suzenjohnson

This by far is the Most fair article about the Penn State scandal .. This young jounalist is so articulate and straight forward.  As a former General Manager of State College's Tofftress Golf Resort , where all the home games were the lodging facilities of Joe and his footlball team for years i experienced... the Owner of Toftrees was a child molester as well and i wonder if he participated with any of this ... as there were numerous reports from our housekeepers and maintenance and other employees that they witnessed many of the  abusive behaviors. I certainly was  a victim and viewed such abuse from my Employer and his family.. what do you do when you want to keep your job and they threaten, not so nice concequences to you and your family... I applaud those who could come forward... all of this must stop and expecially if it does not ... the young continue even in maturity to more abuses... and may learn to live with it... terrible.. My main career was in State College was in State College and myself as well as other collegues have to live with the abuse our company's owner placed upon us... fortunately for him he passed away before they could put him away.

Metsfan27
Metsfan27

The point of the article is well-taken; the focus should be on the real crime and the victims rather than on the most convenient scapegoat, the highest profile figure  involved.  And I've even asked myself if a busy coach, taking care of players, assistant coaches, media, etc., etc., could have done what he was supposed to, reported an incident involving a RETIRED EX-assistant coach to his superiors, then moved on to the hundred-and-one things he's responsible for and FORGOTTEN ALL ABOUT IT.  Heinous in retrospect, but kind of understandable.  But her conclusion belies her premise, because the 2 worlds she's posited, the world of the real and the world of sensationalism, kinda converge in the next to last paragraph--the "real issue,"  that "the administration...failed to respond appropriately,"  and the "perverse narrative," have become the same narrative--the university failed to respond appropriately BECAUSE the football team was more important.

 
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