Paterno and Penn State

posted Nov 10, 2011, 7:34 AM by jj pionke
This has nothing to do with being a librarian but it does have a lot to do with working in academia.  So, last night, the internet exploded with news that Paterno, the football coach for Penn State, was fired.  Paterno was in his 46th year as the head coach.  He was the oldest, longest, and most winningest coach in college football.  All that said, he was fired for doing something legally correct but morally wrong.  Assistant Coach Sandusky has been raping little boys for quite sometime.  In 2002, a grad student saw Sandusky raping a 10 year old and the grad student reported it to Paterno.  Paterno then reported it to the athletic director.  Legally, Paterno fulfilled his obligation.  Morally, he is being condemned for not calling the police.  After Paterno was fired, students rioted.  That's the kind of quick version of events.

The internet quickly started seeing this whole mess as a black and white type of situation.  Of course Paterno deserved to be fired!  The rioting students are supporting a pedophile!  and other such exclamations but there is far more going on here than either of those things.  The rioting students weren't rioting over Sandusky, they were rioting over a much loved legend being fired (it didn't matter what he was fired for) - this leads into the cult of football that is present at most Big Ten schools, including the University of Michigan.  Other people have commented that Big Ten football brings in millions of dollars and it does.  It provides for many improvements, buildings, staff, faculty, and so forth throughout the university.  Football is used as a way to generate esprit de corps among students.  I've seen for myself that University of Michigan students and alumni are fairly zealous in supporting the university from going to football games to buying UM branded stuff to making contributions to various scholarships.  A recent friend told me that they worked in catering in the Michigan League last Summer and that the entire Summer is booked up with people having their wedding receptions in the League.  Football at a Big Ten school has reached religion status and when a hero goes down, it's a shock to the system and it shows just how out of whack the system really is.  Of all those millions of dollars that the football players rake in, nothing goes to the individual player.  Yes, they get academic tutoring, top notch athletic facilities and medical care, but ultimately, they don't get any actual money and many of them play in college hoping to be hired in the NFL.  If they do get into the NFL, the chances are good that they are not making the big dollars, that they blow out their bodies in a few years, and then are broke and unemployable once they leave the NFL because the only skills they have are tackling people on a field.  The culture of football has allowed many atrocities to happen but it has done good as well.  In the fever pitch of condemnation, I have no doubt that everything will get dusted up and resettle itself hopefully in a much better configuration.

However, the cult of football isn't the only thing going on here.  We live in a society where whistleblowers are condemned and to speak out in concern about another person is dangerous.  As I told someone last night, if I had a buck for every single time I tried to bring something to the attention of administration (from the homelessness of a student to a student's severe depression and thoughts of suicide), I'd be rich.  What happened in all of those cases?  NOTHING.  Not a damn thing happened.  I was told it wasn't my business.  I was told that unless the student came to psych services that nothing was going to be done.  Ultimately, I landed up keeping a cheat sheet of resources with me and when I stumbled upon a student in trouble, I usually doled those resources out and skipped asking for help from the school, because the school certainly wasn't interested in giving it.  This goes directly with that grad student.  The grad student saw something that he knew was illegal, why didn't he call the police?  I can tell you why.  FEAR.  Fear makes us do stupid things all the time and grad students, even though they are adults, are afraid.  If the grad student had blown the whistle, I have no doubt that he would have been shown the door and his academic career would have been in ruins.  Does this make what he did morally right?  Not really.  He did tell Paterno what he had seen, which he did need to do, but the grad student should also have called the police, which is something he didn't do.

With all the coverage of Paterno and the university president being fired, the one thing that has the internet most up in arms, and that the mainstream media isn't covering at all, is the victims themselves.  What about them?  Who are they?  Are they ok? What do they think of all of this?  This is the saddest part of the tragedy here.  Our culture is a rape culture where their word against Sandusky will be shredded, ripped apart, and just generally destroyed until such time that the justice system does something - good or bad.  Either way, you can be assured that the trial will drag on for at least a year if not more, thereby making a smorgasbord for the media to focus on.  The children that were molested and raped will be in the spotlight, a place where none of them wants to be.  I am certainly not advocating that all of this should quietly be brushed under the rug.  I am saying that the way our media handles this will be ugly, stupid, and won't help anyone but themselves.  I can say with certainty that being a grad student instructor for a communication studies course has definitely made me see the media in a very different light.

I sincerely hope that the kids that Sandusky raped and molested have gotten or are getting psychological assistance and I hope that their testimonies are taken seriously and that Sandusky is found guilty.  Paterno's reputation is in tatters as is Penn State's.  I can only hope that everyone learns something from all of this - that our world needs to change.

At the end of the day, all of the people involved, including the rioting students, have to live with what they have or have not done.  More though is the fact that this case highlights how broken our society is and how much it needs to change from a revaluing of football and it's players to how we view sex crimes and the victims of them.  In a society where we actively tell people to shut up and not get involved, tragedies such as this one are going to continue to happen.  We have to be willing to get involved in each other's lives, even if it is scary, even if it is painful.  One person can't change the world, typically, but one person can change the world around them.  It's in the choices we make.

I hope those kids are ok, or that they will be ok.  Even after all of this, I still hope.  Foolish, perhaps.  But there it is.