Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Penn State Follow-Up

I don’t want to focus too much on the recent Jerry Sandusky/child molestation case as noted in the last post, which finally seems to have quieted down as the “burning issue we all must confront” media blast. But I do want to write about the experience many of us have had as Penn State graduates and football fans over the past few weeks.

Because it has sucked. In so many ways. The obvious way, of course, is feeling yourself associated to any of this because you have a degree from the university, enjoyed yourself while you were there, still feel good about having gone there, spend a few hours every fall Saturday watching the football team on TV, etc. I can’t tell you how many people at work in NYC anointed me the unofficial expert on this news story … just because I went there. As if I had any sort of inside scoop.

As Brother M pointed out to me over Thanksgiving, Penn State is a learning factory. A LOT of people went there. A lot never had anything to do with the football program, directly or indirectly. I’ve been a Penn State football fan all my life and will go on being one. Sorry if anyone finds that offensive, but I’d be lying if I wrote otherwise. As would millions of other fans. Believe me, for a week or two there, even mentioning that you went to Penn State would elicit vague “pitchforks and torches” vibe from some folks, with you as the Frankenstein monster being stalked through the woods by the howling, straw-hatted mob. If you didn’t support a full shut-down of the football program and demand the immediate imprisonment of all involved, you, by extension, were just as guilty as Sandusky in all this.

The sense of “guilt by association” has been overwhelming at times. Especially concerning Joe Paterno, who was fired over his role in all this, even though we have no idea exactly what that was, save to say at a bare minimum, he dropped the ball in terms of living up to his legend. College administrators tend not to be legendary, and in the cold, black-and-white print of the grand jury indictment, that’s all he was in this situation. Which we have to reconcile with his all-encompassing power as someone who controls everything not just within the football program, but on campus, in that town and in that part of the state.

And I really don’t know how much power the guy has or had wielded beyond his football program, now that we’re equipped with this 20/20 hindsight and superior morality. Would he have known that Sandusky was being investigated by the local police in 1998? Sandusky himself apparently didn’t even know. Who from the police department would have quietly told Paterno this off the record? The media didn’t know about this at the time, otherwise we surely would have heard about it. These are the kind of details we need to know. Did Paterno have any inkling that Sandusky was a pedophile? We’re all assuming this was some sort of quiet common knowledge shared not just by all involved, but by everyone involved with Division I-A college football coaching … and I just don’t know if that’s true or not. If it is, I’ll feel like a horse’s ass for cutting Paterno any slack in this situation. But if it isn’t …

In any event, there are multiple investigations going on now, a trial soon to follow, so we will be inundated with the case again, although we got the media full monty, a legendary college coach falling from grace, this time, and the rest will be anti-climactic. The usual suspects will bloviate, we will be sternly prompted to “think first of the children” … when I can assure you, as a fellow writer, those are the last people on the minds of anyone selling papers or ad space. The first thing will be having the name spelled right in the byline, and then on the check.

I saw a full range of emotions from fellow Penn State grads. One totally disowned Paterno and said he was ashamed to have gone there. That was the extreme. I don’t know any “apologists” … whatever that’s supposed to mean. I see what people mean by that, anonymous commenters on websites bending over backwards to preserve Paterno’s god-like status, but I honestly don’t know anyone who was carrying on like that … or those asshole kids on campus who rioted over this nonsense. Everyone I’ve been in contact with had grave doubts, serious questions and was almost as put off and angered by the out-pouring of hatred towards the university and Paterno as I was.

Every alumni I know was profoundly upset. Some had trouble sleeping. Some got physically ill: headaches, upset stomachs, general malaise. It was like learning that a cherished relative had been accused of a grievous crime, and responding accordingly. I spent two weeks googling “Paterno,” “Sandusky” and “McQueary” every morning to see what had transpired overnight, most of it pure editorial junk. I was obsessed with learning everything I possibly could about the matter. After a week, I realized 99% of what I was reading was utter dogshit, tree-stump pontificating from writers and anonymous, self-appointed super-heroes I wouldn’t buy a used car from, and gave up.

Going back to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving helped a lot. I could see the prevailing attitude back there was, “None of the people hyping this thing care about the kids, or Paterno, or Penn State, so let them blow themselves out and move on to their next conquest.” I could see that this will all end, maybe not soon, but it will end. And the people who follow Penn State football will go on following it, without Joe, with whatever stain this leaves on his legacy and the program. We’ll all go on recognizing that Paterno was a legendary coach, whatever horrible revelations this situation may bring. And we’ll all have to absorb that as it comes along, if it comes along, and reconcile it with his much less tarnished past. His legend is now tarnished? That’s how it works with mere mortals, and we’ve all blown a gasket over the numerous women JFK and Martin Luther King had affairs with while married. They’re still cultural icons, with whatever values you personally attach to them. If those values aren’t complicated, you’re not paying attention or just don’t care. Which is no skin off my nose.

As we’ve seen, other people will be caught up in child sex abuse scandals (your turn now, Syracuse), and the hype machine will kick into overdrive on them. Powerless, angry people will vent righteously on the internet. The hype machine will then give them another topic (take your pick: Kardashian divorce, pepper-sprayed Black Friday shoppers, Herman Cain’s love life, etc.), and they’ll spew Twitter-sized bile all over again, over things they feel no personal connection to and don’t really care about. A subtle message I get from all this: one of the reasons people are so angry is because they sense they just don’t care about anything real, and things like this make them feel like they do, or should. The response rate on stories like this is downright Pavlovian. Ring a bell, and substitute raging impotently for salivating. Chances are if you’re machine-gunning off mini-tirades about every current topic you’re a self-appointed expert on, there’s an emptiness in your life that no amount of time spent on the computer will ever fill.

Personally, it all underlines a seismic shift I felt the day Dad passed on a few Christmas seasons ago. Which was realizing I had just one father figure in my life and felt lost without him for a long time afterwards. I wrote a tribute to Joe Paterno about a decade ago for (and the link doesn’t appear to work right now, unfortunately). Re-reading it now, I can strongly sense that my father was still alive, because I had not experienced the above-noted shift and was attaching father-like qualities to someone (Paterno) who was in no way my father … who the one time I had crossed paths with him, acted like a bit of a nut. Some realizations, you get only the hard way, by experiencing unimaginable and unforeseeable pain and loss. The article I wrote back then feels extremely naïve to me now, but I didn’t know any better at the time.

I can’t tell you how many bad stories and posts I came across on the web attacking Penn State fans for being like children the way they looked up to Joe Paterno, this impossibly clean father figure to millions. The day we put my father in the ground, that fantasy stopped. A lot of fantasies stopped. The world turned black and white, and I can assure you, the last thing on my mind was Penn State football. These bad writers used their massively broad brushes to paint all Penn State fans this way, and I’m just one example of someone with his own much larger, quiet, less obvious personal history, who’d get in their faces and put the fear of God into them if they pulled that little bon mot on me in a social situation.

The amount of sanctimonious, preachy, wrong-headed, simplistic writing I’ve read on this topic has been mind-bending. Like crayon scrawl on wallpaper. Forget about the automatic assumptions of guilt and all the personal baggage (most clearly regarding a disdain for sports of any kind and a burning need to position one self as a font of true, brave morality we must all aspire to). As noted in this article, heroes are not the norm in any extreme situation. Yet … the internet was suddenly crawling with caped crusaders, forces of good who had all the right answers to this moral dilemma and knew every hidden detail about the case. Anonymously. On the internet. Right.

Paterno became an all-purpose piñata for anyone who once believed in a hero and later found the hero to be human. That’s everyone, sooner or later. And once we learn they’re human, the only logical thing to do is to make them bleed, just like we do. I’m having a hard time with people who insinuate that if you don’t personally damn Paterno to burning hell, immediately, you, sir, are suspect, too. This is the sort of sickening nonsense one associates with the Salem witch trials, or any other grotesquely puritanical undertaking. Not everyone in my life is pure and unblemished. Hell, no one is, myself included. I know people who’ve been in prison. Who’ve had serious drug and alcohol problems. Who’ve done “bad things” … anything from petty theft to aggravated assault. You shouldn’t picture me hanging out with a bunch of comic-book villains – most people I know are fairly normal, law-abiding citizens – but sometimes shit happens with people you grew up with and know, and life gets weird.

I haven’t dumped any of those troubled people from my life. Why should I? Because they fucked up? We all fuck up on varying levels. If your life doesn’t contain anyone who’s made these kind of radical errors, goody for you, and I can guess that sanctimony hovers around you like a halo of stale flatulence.

Look at our culture. Our TV shows. Our movies. We are constantly fed characters who are morally ambiguous, or flat-out evil, but then guided in a way that suggests we see these characters as human beings, with feelings, and pasts that explain the roots of their evil, and plenty of other things we all have in common. Think Tony Soprano. Any hiphop artist who portrays himself as a badass with a heart of gold. There are countless thousands of characters and images like this in our society that we are instructed to show some type of human respect or sympathy towards.

Yet … when real-life things like this situation with Paterno come along, we are forcefully instructed to burn this man in effigy and forsake any valuable lessons we learned from him, toss away decades of experience and memory? It just doesn’t work that way. At least for me. If it is found that Joe knew all along about Sandusky’s pedophilia, that he protected and shielded him from the authorities, you better believe I’m going to be furious and about as let down as a fan can be with a major sports figure. But at this point, now that everyone is lawyered up (and don’t flatter yourself, you would be, too, if the media hammer that was dropped on Joe came down on your head), I’m really not sure how close we’re going to get to the truth of this situation, unless people quietly come forward and do some genuinely heroic things that shed light on the situation.

I don’t kid myself. Maybe it’s a New York thing? In the past year or two, thanks to youtube and the explosion of street cams, I’ve been made privy to people filming friends beating up innocent bystanders on the subway and in fast-food joints, or laughing hysterically while providing ironic commentary to a drunken man trying to get back into the burning SUV he just crashed, or a homeless man who’s been stabbed and is now dying on the sidewalk while people passing by ignore him, with one person even pausing to take pictures of him with his phone camera.

The wonders of the internet? It’s all part of the stew of our society, things we don’t like to admit, people we don’t like to acknowledge. Forgive me if I recognize this Penn State situation as a subset of personal dislocation that runs like life blood through so much of what I see today, whether on the internet or street, people who are just incapable of recognizing other people’s humanity. In this case, it comes out as extreme moral posturing, putting on that brave face for the world to see. On the surface, that impulse is a positive thing, but when you think about it … the most moral people I’ve known in my life have never once had to tell me they were moral people, or make any kind of impassioned, grandiose testaments to that effect. And what I learned from them is that you’re only as good as your last act of compassion, that you will fail, and make mistakes, mistreat people on occasion, in effect, be human.

And you could argue that the reason Paterno got himself into this situation is because he, too, didn’t recognize other people’s humanity, in this case that poor kid whom Sandusky was “horsing around with.” And so it goes. He’s paid dearly for it. We all have in some sense, if we’ve taken time to ponder all the obvious and less obvious intangibles. But feel free to skip the less obvious ones. Why trouble yourself with complicated moral questions when the easy ones make for better headlines?

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