This has been an awful week for Penn State alumni and football fans. In brief, former longstanding defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been indicted on various charges regarding acts of pedophilia he committed on campus after his coaching career ended (while he still maintained an office there and used the facilities with children from a youth program he had been running for years).
But the lightning rod in all this has been Joe Paterno, who was eventually ousted as head coach, a job he’s held since 1966, due to his inability to take action when a grad student/assistant coach informed him in 2002 that he had seen Sandusky with a boy in a locker room shower on campus. (In the indictment, it's unclear exactly what the assistant told Paterno.) According to the indictment, Paterno simply followed orders as a university employee and informed his supervisors of what he had been told … who in turn did not inform the police of what had happened, i.e., treat the incident as a criminal matter.
But let’s face it. Even if this had gone according to perfect morality – the grad student, seeing what was happening, physically assaulted Sandusky in the shower, incapacitated him, then immediately called the police to get them involved – the results would have been the same in 2002 as they are now. The incident took place not just on university grounds, but in a locker room reserved for football coaches that Sandusky still had access to (and, according to the indictment, felt comfortable enough with to routinely use as a staging area for his pedophilia). This alone would have been enough to blow up the situation the same way it has now and result in Paterno’s removal.
But as it is, Paterno takes his place in line as an ineffective college administrator, another link in the chain of command who did nothing concrete to stop what appears to be a serial pedophile in his tracks, or at the very least have police investigate him to determine if the allegation was true. Not to excuse his lack of action in any way, but anyone who’s ever worked at a university knows how insular, byzantine and often dislocated from reality their procedures are. They are small fiefdoms, with their own set of codes and regulations, and they like to exercise that authority on a completely internal basis as much as possible. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that world exists as I have worked in that sort of unreality. It explains how something like this could be treated as an “internal matter” to be dealt with rather than doing what any normal human being would do: call the cops. It does not explain why they did not recognize this was a matter of criminal nature and not an isolated campus issue.
And in all honesty, nearly every workplace in my adult life has exercised similar patterns of insularity and questionable morality. Nothing this shocking, thankfully. But in just about every place, I’ve seen workers forfeit their basic human rights, the simple rights of self respect, to keep their jobs, far more often than not when they have reached some type of “tenure” in their positions, have weeks of vacation earned over the years and other larger perks that go along with company loyalty. I’ve seen key employees granted so much power in that isolated work environment that they lose sight of their humanity and become monsters in a sense. Go one floor up or one floor down, and they’re nobody. But in that small space, they rule the world. They know it and act accordingly, with dozens, maybe even hundreds or thousands, of willing accomplices to enable this illusion.
It’s not just the places I’ve worked. You’ve worked there, too, no doubt. And have dealt with this “must avert eyes in the presence of the lord” mentality that goes along with encountering top executives. Think of actors or singers who demand that no one on set makes eye contact with them or speaks to them unless spoken to -- there are countless stories of this sort of arrogance that seem more like France before the Bastille was stormed as opposed to most people’s every-day work reality.
This goes on because that counterfeit authoritarianism has become institutionalized, and people have fear. Fear of losing their jobs, of becoming destitute, of having no future. Realistically, losing your job usually results in weeks or months of discomfort and mild depression, not the wasteland of lost hope most people envision when they encounter a situation at work they know is wrong, but do nothing about. The larger fear is this inexplicable power granted to certain authority figures in isolated environments that far supercedes whatever their professional worth truly is. You got me. I don’t understand it at all: never have, never will.
But hopefully I’m explaining the sort of environment that allows a grad student, and earlier a janitor according to the indictment, see this monster sexually assault young boys, report it only to coworkers and immediate supervisors, and then sit back as nothing happens. I’m not leaving anyone off the hook, but that stifling, amoral fear most people feel at one time or another in their workplaces is the kernel of this sort of cowardice displayed in these events.
I’ve been a Penn State football fan all my life. In the early 70s, as a small child, I purposely had Mom sew the number “22” onto the sleeves of my t-shirts and sweatshirts because I worshipped John Cappelletti, the only Penn State running back to win the Heisman Trophy. There were dozens of other Penn State players I worshipped as a kid, and the fandom extended all through my adulthood, the only constant being Joe Paterno, and that no-frills, “education first” winning way he’s espoused that I’ve admired so much.
Now? I don’t know. I’d rather let this whole thing play out before I come to any conclusions. There’s a few hundred miles of dark road to travel down before this thing is over. Best-case scenario is what I noted above: Joe took the information the grad assistant passed on to him, informed his supervisors, who then essentially did nothing. He did what he was supposed to do as a school administrator, and the administrators above him failed to take appropriate action, as did he.
If that’s the case, I can feel reasonably comfortable with Joe Paterno and his legacy. This is an awful way to end things, but honestly, I was hoping he would step down for the past five years. A situation like this at least forces him to leave, as it seemed like he was never going to leave under his own free volition. I gather part of that was going after various win records, first the I-A record that was an ongoing competition with Florida State’s head coach, Bobby Bowden. And this past year, the overall college win record that he just won from Grambling’s Eddie Robinson.
While this “overall win” issue was great entertainment over the years, it now seems like small change compared to what’s happening now. Even if the best-case scenario pans out, Joe leaves with a dark stain on his record, one that will invariably creep into everybody’s mind when talking or thinking about him, even years from now. For me, it would be like having an uncle you love dearly, despite something morally troubling he's done in his life. (And if everyone in your life has never done anything morally troubling, that's a gold star by your name.)
Worst-case scenario, Joe knew what was going on, had protected Sandusky for years from authorities, purposely told the administrators to handle this internally, didn’t recognize the scope of the situation, and quietly enabled a monster to roam free, and damage and taint no doubt dozens of young lives.
I don’t know. Unlike countless anonymous internet prognosticators and genuinely hack sports columnists and editorialists, who seem to envision themselves as wearing capes with their first-name initials emblazoned on their chests, I just don’t know. I don’t know what happened here. Very few people do right now. We need to know. Or at least I do as a lifelong fan and someone who wants to go on believing that someone I’ve always admired, at the very best, just lost the thread in terms of asserting his authority and doing something decisive in a situation that required the sort of moral turpitude he’s espoused daily. If that truly is the case, I’ll feel bad, but nowhere near as bad if something more damning transpires here.
And if it isn’t, then I just have to make a seismic shift in how I deal with the issue of Penn State football in the future. I’ll always be a fan, but would prefer being one with some semblance of respect for the man who built the program over the course of a lifetime. As it is, I’m a grown man. I watched my father pass away a few years ago. Nearly lost my life in a house fire a few months ago. We all go through these genuinely hard situations in our lives, that are about us, and our lives directly … not things we view from afar, like sports. I’ve got my own set of problems and moral issues to deal with, which keep me more than occupied, and my own life to live that goes on whatever happens with this situation. When this blows over, the media and angry rabble will find another piece of meat to gnaw away at. And life will go on, with many more dark days and small victories to come, all of which will be dealt with in their time.