Wednesday, November 09, 2011
Say It Ain't So, Joe
I was going to avoid this subject simply because there's an odd sort of conflict of interest at play for me -- namely, all of my ex's siblings went to this particular school and their rabid allegiance to it was the subject of quite a bit of back-and-forth between us during my time with their sister. I've never been someone who aligns myself with any group, let alone vigorously, and so I never could understand the almost cult-like devotion and blood-brotherhood ethos with fellow alumni that an alma-mater could inspire. It just didn't make a bit of sense to me and so I often looked at the traditional machinations and proclamations of unwavering faith that went along with it probably much the same way that Mark and Ollie looked at the Mek tribe when they made the decision to live with it and document its alien ways. Although I was probably more of a dick than those guys were -- I admit that.
Bottom line, though: My adopted brothers and sister are truly great people and I certainly wouldn't want to insult them, but strangely that very special brand of steadfast fealty is part of the reason I want to at least throw out a minor comment or two on the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State that just ended the almost mythical career of the school's football coach, Joe Paterno. I won't run down the details of the scandal that has inarguably brought shame to what was going to be the hallowed legacy of Paterno and has consumed the Penn State athletics program from the inside out; those details are sickening, made even more so when you consider that it appears there were those within the program -- Paterno included -- who at least had some idea what was going on with defensive coach Jerry Sandusky and yet didn't lift a finger to truly put a stop to it. Obviously, Paterno isn't charged with a crime and I believe him when he expresses extraordinary remorse for what happened, as well as what he did and didn't do about it. Paterno's cultivated a reputation for being a stand-up guy, so it really is unfortunate that this is the way he's going to go out.
The issue I have, again, is with the view by those who either went to Penn State or just count themselves among the school's many fans that it's an almost infallible institution. Case in point: An article written for USA Today College by a Penn State alum named Emily Grier in which she goes to nearly super-human lengths to express sympathy for the victims of the alleged abuse while defending Penn State as an establishment -- a way of life, even -- that remains largely above reproach. One which has earned the devotion it inspires through a lifetime of good deeds that simply can't be sullied by the actions of a few bad apples.
Except that this runs much deeper than that.
True, at worst it would appear as if the gruesome crimes allegedly perpetrated by Sandusky were indirectly enabled by a handful of people, but those people are undeniably the power structure of Penn State -- not necessarily the heart of the school but certainly the ones who hold the hearts, minds and loyalty of the student body and beyond. Make no mistake, if a systemic cover-up of any kind took place that allowed Jerry Sandusky to rape children, that's not a couple of bad apples -- that's a Catholic Church-level crime. And much like followers of the Catholic Church, the Penn State nation will have to learn to reconcile the fact that the view of their institution has been irreparably tarnished, and with excellent reason. Of course the school has done much good throughout its history and that shouldn't be disregarded, but it can be argued that the church has as well, and yet that allowed it no slack when the details of the behavior of a relative few within its ranks began to come to light. In fact, the presentation of itself as a benign and charitable entity is exactly why its sins are so devastating. Why they feel like such a betrayal to so many.
Joe Paterno is Penn State. He's the face of the school -- its deity. And when you hold someone or something up to idol worship, you blind yourself to the possibility that that person or institution is capable of terrible things. The same as any of us is.
It bothers me because it makes me feel like I was always right in saying that no one deserves sanctification -- no one has earned it and no one, no matter how much you believe in him or her, is beyond the potential to let you down. I wish someone would prove me wrong about this, but that never seems to happen. The good almost always succumb. Evil generally triumphs. Even gods fall. And when they do, it devastates those who worshiped them -- leaving everything they believed in in tatters and leaving them desperate for answers.