In the initial aftermath of the Sandusky story becoming national news and the frenzy of activity that reached a crescendo when living legend "Joe Pa" was relieved of his duties by Penn State's trustees, network cameras showed us a gathering of supportive students at the Paterno home. At various times during their vigil, they erupted with the rallying cry, "We are Penn State." It's a familiar chorus to anyone even peripherally involved with the university. It adorns everything from bumper stickers to bath towels and is the most common vocalization of the connection many former and current Nittany Lions feel toward their alma mater.
"We are Penn State."
So what does it mean to be "Penn State" now that the Freeh report has exposed the depth and scope of the university's failure?
My relationship with Penn State is long term, deep, and current. I graduated from PSU as did several members of my family. I've been teaching a class for Penn State's Washington program for more than a decade and for several seasons I served as the PA announcer for Lady Lion basketball games. I have enjoyed and benefited from being part of the vast informal and formal Penn State network and maintain meaningful and rewarding relationships with dozens of fellow alumni and former students.
My association with Penn State has provided nothing but positive benefits. When people learn that "dear old state" is my alma mater they react approvingly. When they find out that I teach for PSU, they are similarly inclined to a favorable reaction. In many cases, when learning of my PSU connections, people would invoke the Paterno name and would be thrilled to discover that I once knew and even (indirectly) worked for the patron saint of college football. Their positive associations with Paterno and Penn State were transferable to me. And while I've never been the super fan type (the only Penn State merchandise I own was given to me as a gift and I've attended a grand total of two football games since graduating when I wasn't paid to be in attendance), I graciously accepted their positive feedback and benefited from it in ways large and small. From comparing notes, I know that many of my PSU network friends and acquaintances have enjoyed similar benefits.
"We are Penn State," the gift that keeps on giving.
When the story of what were then allegations initially came to light, I heard from many members of that network. Some wanted to know what I thought. Others wanted to express an opinion to a member of their collegiate tribe. The majority, while outraged and horrified by Sandusky's evil acts, continued to believe in Coach Paterno or hope that he would eventually be proven innocent of any wrongdoing or fault. Some were blindly allegiant and would not even entertain the possibility of Paterno fallibility. They lashed out at the trustees that fired him and the reporters who raised questions about his role. Blame the messenger. Save the coach. Like too many before them, as the Freeh report chronicles, they were more concerned about Penn State and Joe's "legacy" than about the long line of Sandusky rape victims.
I have avoided expressing an opinion publicly until now. Maybe it was journalistic discipline that made me resistant to rushing to judgment. Or perhaps, even though I'm consciously unaware of it, I too hoped that a full investigation would lead to a more positive picture of the actions and inactions of Penn State's leadership, particularly those of Joe Paterno. The Freeh report, among other things, dashes that hope.
So now that I'm going on record and preparing to take my lumps from those that will defend, defend, defend in the face of all mounting damning evidence of the indefensible, I have some thoughts and a conclusion to share.
To those who will insist this isn't about football (as Joe Paterno did in his posthumously released letter) or about a broader problem with all-powerful college football, I refer you to a piece by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post.
Responding to the Paterno notion that this isn't about football, Robinson writes:
Imagine that an assistant coach of, say, the chess team were caught showering with an 11-year-old boy, as Sandusky was in 1998. Would that chess coach still be around three years later? If he were caught in the act of abusing another young boy in 2001, would the top officials of the university dither and fret for days -- without making the slightest attempt to identify and locate the victim? Would the head chess coach be able to convince his superiors that there was no need to call state welfare officials, let alone the police?
From the very beginning, it was difficult for me to imagine a minor role for Coach Paterno. My entire Penn State experience indicated otherwise. The weak defense offered by many loyalists goes something like this: "Joe reported what he knew to his superiors. He fulfilled his obligation and was guilty of no wrongdoing."
Really? So when Odin hears of problems in Asgard, he just kicks it upstairs and goes back to his regularly scheduled All-Father duties? There is no upstairs in Asgard, and Joe Pa was the king of Happy Valley. The buck stops in the throne room. This of course does not absolve his so-called superiors in the chain of command for their failures. But as we all know from Spider-Man, "with great power comes great responsibility." Does anyone really doubt who held the greatest power in this equation?
I mentioned earlier that I once indirectly worked for Joe. An encounter I had with one of his lieutenants at that time has always provided my shorthand example of the all-seeing, all-knowing nature of Paterno power. I've been haunted by this memory ever since the Sandusky story broke because of what it illustrates about the way things worked at Penn State.
I was the PA announcer for the women's basketball team. As is often the case, attendance at women's games was a fraction of that for men's games. And during this time frame (the 1980s) the Lady Lions were a force with which to be reckoned. I decided that the team deserved more support and attention and that I needed to push the boundaries of the typical no-frills Penn State approach in an attempt to create some excitement around the team. So I began announcing the games with an atypical flair when compared to the PSU way (no names on the back of jerseys, etc.). The team seemed to like it as did the fans. So while I was slightly uncomfortable, I continued to have a bit of fun at the microphone.
One day I arrived for my pre-game preparation, which mostly consisted of mastering proper pronunciations of the visiting team's roster, to find a note from my boss. He asked that I see him in his office before the game. When I arrived he told me that he had a message to share from the big boss, Mr. Paterno. The message went something like this (and I'm paraphrasing):
"We know you're having fun and the crowd seems to like it as well. But Joe wanted me to remind you that this is Penn State, and we don't want to have too much fun in that way. He likes what you're doing and doesn't want you to stop. But just remember who we are, and don't go too far."
I actually left impressed with the attention to detail and the clear vision of what it meant to present and represent Penn State.
Consequently, my image of Joe Paterno has always been like that of the all-seeing Odin from my Asgard metaphor. If you prefer mythology of a less Nordic vintage, Penn State was Mount Olympus and Joe Pa was Zeus. My firsthand experience with the attention to detail involved in being Penn State did not square with the portrayals of the Coach as somehow partially out of the loop when it came to Sandusky. Those who could not entertain the notion of the great man and leader failing at this most crucial juncture concocted a narrative that pushed him to the periphery of events allowing them to believe that their hero had once again done the right thing. The story that emerges from the Freeh report suggests something entirely different and there isn't a happy ending to be found.
This entire sad and tragic tale brings to mind my favorite definition of what it means to have character. Character isn't just a function of public actions or pronouncements, but is more about what you do when no one is around to see you do it. When you're all alone and faced with a difficult choice and you choose to do the right thing even though no one is watching, that's the ultimate definition of character. At least four powerful men at Penn State faced those private moments and pivotal choices and made their private decisions about what was right and what was wrong. No one was watching, until now.
Finally, returning to the notion of what "We are Penn State" means today, here's what I've concluded for myself. Since I've been a beneficiary of that association, sharing in the glory of being part of the school and team that did it the right way, I now also need to share in the shame. Many of you will conclude otherwise. But for me, the burden of being Penn State includes taking responsibility for being part of the myth machine that brought us to where we are today. There is another Penn State, one almost completely disconnected from the more public Paterno State. That's a Penn State built on academic excellence and the core ideas and principles of higher education. It's the Penn State, along with Sandusky's victims, that Paterno, Spanier, Curley, and Schultz failed to put first in this horrifically defining instance. It's also the Penn State that will lead the way back from the wilderness one day in the future... when enough time has passed... and enough wrongs have been righted to the degree that's possible... and when those convicted of crimes pay the price for what they've done.
But that's a story for another day. Today, on behalf of my miniscule share of the Penn State franchise, I offer an apology. To the victims of Sandusky's inhuman acts, I am profoundly sorry.
"We are Penn State," and we let you down when you needed us most.
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