Far Too Great a Cost November 16th, 2011
I don’t think it’s because I didn’t go to a Division 1 school with a giant athletic program. I don’t think it’s because I grew up in a family of Oklahoma State fans at a time when college football was something we tried not to think too much about. (The Cowboys weren’t quite ranked #2 back then…) I don’t think it’s because I am in any way confused about the details of what went down in the Penn State locker room. So could someone please explain to me the outpouring of support and solidarity for Joe Paterno?
Throughout the end of last week I read many Facebook status updates with commentary on the Penn State news. Some people commented that everyone involved deserved everything they were getting (indictments, firings, and the like). But others were more equivocating. More than one person opined in the vein of, “On one hand Paterno should be fired for what he was complicit in, but on the other hand I feel badly for such a tragic end to a legendary career.” As I shared these sentiments with a good friend of ours over pizza Thursday evening he responded, “There’s only one hand in this story.” I have to agree.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of people out there who see it differently. There are many who believe that Paterno’s legend as a football coach in some way offsets his involvement in the Sandusky scandal. They are rallying around him. They were heartbroken to learn that he’d been ousted from his long-standing post. And their allegiance astounds me.
On his blog The Daily Dish Andrew Sullivan compares these Penn State loyalists to Catholic parishioners who rose up in defense of their priests upon learning that they were sex abusers. One of the comments cited by Sullivan comes from blogger Jessica Banks‘ (a Penn State alum) stunning post entitled “We Are… More Than Penn State.” As I try to understand why anyone could have compassion for Paterno in the wake of a scandal like this I am enlightened by Banks’ explanation:
The people who say that Penn State football is the local religion are not wrong. In fact, it’s a more apt comparison than they probably realize. The institution is storied and expansive, inextricably associated with the reputation of the school and anyone who has passed through it. Its financial impact is difficult to quantify: there’s no question the program has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, but there’s also no question that the school allocates resources to athletics that can and should be spent on the university’s actual mission of education. As such, Penn State students pay what amount to private school prices for a state school education … because it comes with a winning team.
And while the edifice of Penn State football bears striking resemblance to the Catholic Church, its history and reputation has been largely constructed around a single person, much like today’s evangelical megachurches. Joe Paterno’s record may be the substance of Penn State’s athletic reputation, but his personality is the soul. Penn State doesn’t just claim a winning football program — it claims a moral one, a program that forms young men into admirable athletes and upstanding people.
So it sounds to me as though these people – the Paterno supporters – drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago. Their loyalty to the school is inextricably linked to their affinity for the football program. In a telling example of this a Penn State sports historian quoted in this video says, “I can’t tell you what I’d like to do to [Sandusky] now if I could get him. He’s ruined Penn State.” Not, “He’s ruined the lives of many young boys,” but, “He’s ruined Penn State.” Lovely.
Even in light of understanding that for some people the value of the school and the football program are synonymous, I still struggle to get my head around that belief system in the first place. When does a person make the decision that the quality of the football program matters more than the quality of the education? When does a person make the decision that the rape of little boys is an acceptable price to pay for a winning football team? Call me crazy, but I say it’s far too great a cost.
Sullivan sums it up similarly in another post on this topic.
If you want to understand the cult of Joe Paterno’s role in allowing a ten-year-old to be raped and his rapist never brought to justice, look at the scenes last night, as students rioted in defense of their demi-God. Winning football games morally trumps allowing a brutal child rapist to avoid criminal charges and go on to rape many more. …
That the structure of Penn State – and its creepy Paterno worship – allowed this to happen is bad enough. That the student body would rather side with a negligent football coach over a raped child is beyond belief.
I try hard not to judge people, truly I do. But I am really dismayed by the people who find Paterno (or anyone else involved) the least bit defensible. It’s football! It’s a game! It’s a decent reason to tailgate and wear face paint and eat far too many nachos in a single sitting, but that’s about it.