Unhappy Valley

Penn State Football Game
Licensed by Creative Commons (Ben Stanfield)

Some quick thoughts about what’s happened at Penn State in recent days, including the student rioting last night…

First, I feel for people like sportswriter Michael Weinreb, who experienced an idyllic upbringing in State College — his father was on the Penn State faculty — and had a good experience at PSU himself. Despite that background, here’s where he came down on the affair, in an essay for Grantland:

Our leaders failed to cover, and while they deserve the benefit of due process, they deserve to be held accountable for whatever mistakes they made. If it means that this is how Joe Paterno goes out, then so be it; if it means that 30 years of my own memories of Penn State football are forever tarnished, then I will accept it in the name of finding some measure of justice. Every sane person I know agrees on this.

So I feel for those with a connection to the school and town who feel that what they’ve known has been ripped away.

But I feel much worse, obviously, for the children affected by the grotesque actions allegedly committed by Jerry Sandusky. If the allegations against Sandusky are true and those above him responded as tepidly as they did, were the firings enough, or the loss of innocence that Weinreb poignantly described?

Even before the firings of football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier, columnist Jennifer Rubin was calling for Penn State to go even further and shut down its entire football program:

What was one of the crown jewel of college football programs is now properly regarded as a deformed and demented undertaking….

If [the allegations from the Pennsylvania attorney general and state police commissioner are] true, from janitors to the athletic director and the vice president for business and finance, a series of individuals placed their own selfish interests above the interests of helpless children. They enabled a monster….

Joe Paterno
Joe Paterno - Wikimedia

Many are calling [this was written Monday] for Paterno to be fired. That’s the least that should occur. The dilemma remains: After the legal process finishes with those subject to criminal sanctions, how does Penn State atone? On one level it cannot restore to the children whose lives were ruined what was taken from them. There’s no apology that would suffice; no civil settlement that could reverse the damage.

This is the very definition of corruption — the “impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle : depravity.” And for that, the solution, it seems, must be to excise that corruption from the body of the university and reestablish the purpose and virtue of the institution. End the football program. Let the recruits go elsewhere. Level the stadium or better yet, let it decay and crumble and be an eyesore, a fitting metaphor for the program that was suffused with moral rot.

The notion that the university serves the football program should be pulled out by the roots. The university should in essence declare that henceforth there will be no confusing the priorities of the institution.

I don’t know if that’s appropriate, but I do think that Rubin is on the right track. Speaking as an enormous sports fan, but a bigger fan of higher education, Penn State (or if not that institution itself, the NCAA) needs to make a statement that the football program serves the university, not vice-versa. And firing a few individuals still seems insufficient.

(This debate is not solely about what’s happened in Happy Valley. George Will had a compelling column yesterday about the “accelerating preposterousness of big-time college football” and it doesn’t even mention Joe Paterno. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate being at a school in Division III; not to say there’s no temptation to, say, dumb down standards in order to admit and graduate superior athletes, but at least there’s no TV money to amplify such problems a million-fold. As an academic department chair, I’ve had overwhelmingly positive interactions with our athletic director and coaches.)

NCAA LogoThe harshest penalty the NCAA gives out (its “death penalty”) is to ban teams from competing for at least a year. In football this has happened only once so far, to Southern Methodist University in 1987, after years of violations and probation stemming from payments to players. Serious as that incident was, it pales in comparison to a football program sheltering a sexual predator. Perhaps this “death penalty” is the least that needs to happen.

Of course, given how thousands of Penn State students reacted to the firing of a football coach (here’s Weinreb’s response today), I shudder to think what would happen if the entire program disappeared…

According to the New York Times article on Paterno’s firing (cited above), a cameraman at the press conference shouted at the vice-chair of the board of trustees, “Your campus is going to burn tonight.” And so it did, at least figuratively, with students tearing down lampposts, overturning a news van, and throwing rocks and fireworks at police.

It’s frustrating to read what those students willing to be quoted had to say by way of explanation or justification: (from the Times)

We got rowdy, and we got maced. But make no mistake, the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend.

It’s not fair. The board is an embarrassment to our school and a disservice to the student population.

Of course we’re going to riot. What do they expect when they tell us at 10 o’clock that they fired our football coach?

As the Times reporter noted, “Some students noted the irony that they had come out to oppose what they saw as a disgraceful end to Mr. Paterno’s distinguished career as a football coach, and then added to the ignobility of the episode by starting an unruly protest.” Yet one such student went on to say, “This definitely looks bad for our school. I’m sure JoePa wouldn’t want this, but this is just an uproar now, we’re finding a way to express our anger.”

All such statements are, of course, asinine. But reading them makes me feel sadness and resignation more than anger (which I’m trying to limit, and reserve for Sandusky and those who enabled him). First, sadness that while these 18-24 year olds can empathize with Joe Paterno, they seem to have limited or no ability to empathize with young children who were not protected by those in a position to do so. Or at least, sad that they cannot properly compare their own minimal level of suffering (at losing a beloved campus figure in such a fashion), or Paterno’s (at the loss of employment and dignity), to what these children and their families have experienced.

Second, though, I’m resigned to expect such immaturity, to some degree. As much as anything else I’ve learned in ten years of teaching day college students, it’s that they are not yet adults. Not to reduce persons to brains with bodies, but neurological development is still underway during the traditional years of undergraduate enrollment. (Not to mention spiritual, moral, and other types of physiological development.) So when students disappoint me with their behavior or attitudes, I try to remind myself that they’re works in progress. (As am I, though perhaps a bit nearer completion thanks to years more education and experience.) I then try to hold them accountable to the expectations I set (and I hope the Penn State administration would do so for those who rioted last night), while showing them as much grace as possible.

And it’s the importance of grace, and the difficulty of living as people of grace, that has prompted in me the most reflection as these events have accelerated.

It strikes me that for as much sorrow and revulsion as I’ve felt in learning more about what happened to these children in State College, PA (and becoming the parent of young children has made empathy in this situation all the more immediate and painful), I’ve also felt a fair amount of anger. And clearly I’m not alone. How quick those who otherwise pay no attention to college football have been to take up their pens, keyboards, and megaphones to condemn Jerry Sandusky and his enablers in the strongest terms possible.

Perhaps this indicates that, divided as our society is and prone to relativistic morality as we’ve become, we can at least come together in feeling rage about the molestation of children. It’s a strange way to achieve consensus, but righteous anger isn’t entirely bad. It suggests that we do still bear the image of God, people who can yet, through the haze of sin, dimly see injustice and unrighteousness for what they are and feel about them as a God of justice and righteousness does.

But I don’t only feel anger in this situation; I feel pleasure at being able to express anger — and perhaps also at being able to redirect a desire for justice away from myself. At some level, it felt satisfying to describe Sandusky’s actions, as I did above, as “grotesque.” It was shockingly easy to apply that term to someone else; I doubt I have ever used it, even in my most private thoughts, on myself, even on the rare occasions when I honestly evaluate what I’ve done and left undone and name my sins.

And even if the righteousness of my anger stemmed from an authentic thirst for justice on behalf of the innocent rather than relief that my own sinfulness wasn’t exposed as Sandusky’s was… My response reminds me how hard it is to live as people of grace. It’s not my place to forgive or decline to forgive what Sandusky did, or what Paterno and other failed to do. But it is my calling to forgive as I have been forgiven, and indulging an opportunity to feel ungraciously righteous at a distance does little to form me as a forgiven forgiver.


3 thoughts on “Unhappy Valley

  1. When I was in grad school at Iowa, there was a member of the first-string basketball squad who was benched but allowed to keep his scholarship after being _convicted_ of sexual assault on a female student (a misdemeanor charge, plead down from a felony). When some of us picketed outside a game to protest the decision, people on their way to the game shouted obscenities and threw empty beer bottles at us for the crime of believing that the university shouldn’t reward it’s athletes for raping fellow students. I have to admit I’ve had a jaded view of all collegiate sports ever since. The real scandal, I suspect, is that what happened at Penn State isn’t really a scandal. It’s the status quo.

  2. I always hesitate to write about current events, mostly because historians prefer distance and partly because I doubt that I have anything new to add. So I appreciate the comments here and on Facebook.

    Today Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated has broken his silence on the affair. (He’s currently writing a book on Paterno and living in State College, so he’s got an unusual, and conflicted, perspective.) It’s well worth reading: http://joeposnanski.si.com/2011/11/10/the-end-of-paterno.

    One thing he notes: “Sometimes, I feel like the last week or so there has been a desperate race among commentators and others to prove that they are MORE against child molesting than anyone else. That makes me sick. We’re all sickened. We’re all heartbroken. We’re all beyond angry, in a place of rage where nothing seems real.” And I think that’s what I was trying to get at in the last section of my piece.

    But then Posnanski adds what I didn’t have the knowledge or time to add: that “Joe Paterno has lived a whole life,” and there are elements of it that will survive this affair and continue to benefit others. Posnanski mentioned the library that Paterno and his wife essentially made possible, and the religious center on campus to which he was a major donor.

    One of my best friends was a Penn State undergraduate, and she had something of the same take. In her experience, PSU modeled the appropriate relationship between football and higher education: the program served and enriched the academic and other co-curricular programs at the university. So I hope that, whatever happens to Penn State football, that type of interaction between athletics and the university survives as a legacy of Joe Paterno.

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