The New Moderate Attempts to Digest the Penn State Scandal
One of the most illustrious “brands” in American college football abruptly imploded last week, taking with it a university president and a fabled coach who will never again enjoy the cheers of multitudes. That much is sad enough. We’ve also heard that the lives of at least nine boys (or former boys) have been ransacked and polluted, possibly beyond repair. If the accounts are true, the man who perpetrated the assaults is a fiend of the lowest order. (You don’t hear the word “fiend” bandied about much these days; I think we should use it more often.)
In the days since the awful story broke like a gargantuan ten-year-old egg spewing its putrid contents across the national consciousness, I’ve had some time to think about the lessons to be drawn from it. Of course, nobody loves a writer who promises paragraph after paragraph of moral edification. Instead of writing a treatise, I’ve distilled my thoughts into a dozen brief reflections on the scandal that stopped America in its tracks.
1. A lifetime of greatness can be nullified by a single mistake. Joe Paterno spent more than 60 years building his legacy at Penn State, 46 of them as the beloved head coach of a legendary football program. I’ve always found it tragic that a lifetime of effort can be undone by a single lapse, and the case of “JoePa” is no exception. By all accounts a decent and down-to-earth man who transformed countless lives for the better, Paterno was adhering to university dictates when he informed his boss about the alleged sexual assault by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Yes, he should have delved into the details, confronted Sandusky in person and made sure he would never harm a child again. That would have been the ideal response… and who among us can say why he let the opportunity slip away? Instead, JoePa’s buck-passing cost him his job and his aura of greatness — a sad, inglorious finale to an otherwise glorious career.
2. Did Paterno really deserve to be fired? Wouldn’t a slap on the wrist have sufficed? At the very least, shouldn’t he have been entitled to a hearing? At first I thought the university went overboard when it abruptly sacked him (over the phone, no less). Paterno didn’t witness a crime, after all. He heard about it second-hand from a graduate assistant (more about him later). How could he have called the police on the basis of hearsay? But Paterno may have known more than we’ve been led to believe, and the university felt that a thorough housecleaning was in order. The final solution was quick, deadly and probably the most effective way for Penn State to cleanse its image as quickly as possible. The brand had to be protected, even though that brand was built by the man they fired.
3. I can understand why Penn State students rioted. Penn State is more than a football school these days… over the past half century PSU has steadily climbed in the national rankings for academic quality. But football — and the gobs of money it generated — had a lot to do with that newfound academic lustre. Penn State students honestly believed that a deity with an Italian surname was living in their midst. When the university canned him so ignominiously, it was as if their own father had been carted off by the cops. Skeptics would suggest that college students shouldn’t live and breathe football, but try telling that to the faithful in Happy Valley.
4. Left-leaning critics had a field day bashing Penn State. Twitter was full of snide references to those ghastly Penn State students who rioted in the wake of Paterno’s dismissal. “Just the level of intelligence you’d expect from students admitted to Penn State,” one of them sniffed. To those rarefied souls, Penn State represents everything they revile: rowdy, drunken, muscleheaded warriors whose crude energy mysteriously propels them to success in the business world. For blue-staters, PSU is a classic red-state university. I wonder when well-educated progressives will realize that their snootiness has driven a third of America into the clutches of right-wing populists like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
5. Powerful conservative institutions generally deny wrongdoing. Like the Vatican, Wall Street and (to a somewhat lesser degree) Congress, the Penn State football program was a powerful entity intent on perpetuating that power at all costs. Tightly run, male-dominated organizations like these tend to become more and more conservative and inflexible over time. Success breeds defensiveness and even blindness to wrongdoing. All threats to the system must be deflected; no internal flaws can be acknowledged. Such organizations exist in a state of perpetual denial, and Penn State’s football program was true to form.
6. Nearly all the offenders in contemporary sex scandals (and even financial scandals) are men. Most of them are oversexed males drunk with power and testosterone. Clinton, Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner… what they all have in common is a personal tool that won’t stay put. The few women who make tabloid headlines tend to be Hollywood nymphets or the occasional schoolteacher who entertains a horny adolescent. What is it about men today? Laggards in school… stupid in public conduct… pathologically reckless on Wall Street… I’m almost ashamed to admit I belong to their tribe. Scientists say the Y chromosome is gradually deteriorating over time, but the descent seems to be steeper and quicker than anyone would have expected. Whatever happened to character, honor, courage and other archaic male mantras from the Age of Chivalry?
7. Mike McQueary needs to be held accountable. He’s the former graduate assistant who allegedly witnessed Sandusky raping a ten-year-old boy in a Penn State shower and did nothing to stop the assault. I can understand a failure of nerve when walking in on a horror being perpetrated by one’s superior… he was probably dumbstruck. But all he had to do was clear his throat to make his presence known, say a few words to break up the assault (a naked middle-aged Sandusky in the shower couldn’t have posed much of a threat to the 6’2″ former quarterback), then yank the poor boy out of there and call the cops. Sandusky’s reign of terror would have ended in 2002 instead of 2011. Instead, a skittish McQueary bolted out of the shower room and waited until the next day to tell Coach Paterno. JoePa was fired; McQueary is simply on leave. Of course, it’s easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback… but a real quarterback would have acted more decisively.
8. What can we do about pedophiles? I don’t mean pedophiles who have committed crimes; that’s easy: we prosecute them and take them off the street. I mean people who are sexually attracted to children and find themselves tempted to consummate their wayward passion. Most of them probably have little or no control over their orientation. So do we force them to undergo therapy? (And would therapy make any difference?) Do we isolate them from society? Castrate them? Load them with drugs? Give them computer-animated kiddie porn to defuse their urges as harmlessly as possible? Whatever the means, we have to work on controling pedophilia before the pedophiles can act.
9. Pedophiles are spoiling it for men who simply enjoy being with kids. Children (most of them, anyway) are charming little people, and their companionship can be a tonic for world-weary souls. Helping young people grow and laugh and flourish also happens to be one of life’s most rewarding pursuits. Now, with pedophilia in the headlines, any man who consorts with kids for any reason is likely to be viewed with suspicion. And that’s a tragedy, because children need positive male role models outside the home. Do we ban all one-on-one contact between kids and their leaders? I’m afraid it might come to that, for everyone’s peace of mind.
10. It helps to have friends in high places. Just ask Sandusky, who’s out on the street proclaiming his innocence (aside from a little “horseplay.”) The judge who let him go free on $100,000 bail was a volunteer with Sandusky’s Second Mile youth program.
11. The worst of it: Penn State simply told Sandusky to take his act elsewhere. When Joe Paterno’s higher-ups at Penn State heard the report of Sandusky’s brutal misconduct in the shower, did they call the police? Of course not. Did they at least notify the parents of the boys in Second Mile that their leader was up to no good? Try again. They ordered him to stop bringing boys to campus! In other words, they essentially advised him that he was free to indulge his unholy urges anywhere else. What were they thinking? Was their loyalty to Paterno’s onetime heir-apparent so steadfast that they simply winked at his extracurricular activities? Were they afraid that an arrest would tarnish the brand? More afraid of a little bad publicity than they were fearful for the safety of Jerry’s boys? This is the same “see no evil” policy that prompted so many Roman Catholic bishops to ship their wayward priests to other parishes… as if a change of scene might cure them. It doesn’t. It simply enables them to find new victims in new settings.
12. Money has become WAY too important in college football. I know, I know… if the schools can make all those megabucks from lucrative TV contracts and the like, what right do we have to stop them? It’s probably too late to stuff this musclebound genie back into its bottle, but I’d still like to see colleges (and Congress, for that matter) distance themselves from Big Money. The heavenly scent of dollars in the air has driven college football to some boneheaded decisions. Examples: Boise State just joined the Big East conference, while the core of the old conference (Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia) jumped ship for other destinations. The “Big Ten” conference now numbers 12 schools, while the “Big 12” actually has ten. Rutgers, the birthplace of college football and my own alma mater, recently renamed its playing field High Point Solutions Stadium. (Is everything for sale?) Money has cheapened college football and swelled its head at the same time. What does all this have to do with the mess at Penn State? Simply that the stakes have become prohibitively high, and nobody is willing to risk all that glorious loot to save a bunch of innocent children from hell on earth.