AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared. “On Lying,” in Hannah Arendt, Crisis of the Republic, 1972. Pp. 6-7.
I’ve been watching events unfold at Penn State as the Freeh Report was released, the NCAA sanctions issued, and more victims surface. What has struck me the most is the endless lying and the great concern regarding reputation, the reputation of Penn State, the football program, and that of Mr. Paterno. Penn State had long prided itself as being morally superior to other large sports factories. Long free of any NCAA sanctions and possessing enviable rates of graduation, more than a few commentators opined that it was a shame that more institutions didn’t follow the “Penn State” way of running athletics and the larger institution. But this was always a myth, a false idol, which has been painstakingly smashed by the evidence presented in the Freeh Report. The biggest lie was always that Penn State ran a morally superior program. According to the Report, it wasn’t even legally compliant–a much lower standard of excellence. There was no institutional mechanism to easily collect statistics regarding on-campus violence, nor were university personnel trained on how to comply with the Federal Clery Act of 1990–20 years after its passage. In particular, the football program was specifically exempted by the University from what limited Clery Act training existed–an exemption that runs counter to federal law.
This long-standing mythology of “Happy Valley” and it’s morally superior football program metastasized, chewed through the culture’s collective frontal lobe until, low and behold, a statue honoring head football coach, Joe Paterno, was placed at an entrance of Beaver Stadium. Alarm bells should have rung as soon as that statute was placed, since the institution had bronzed the living. Usually, only the dead are given statutes as a way of honoring their deeds, deeds that have survived historical scrutiny. By stark contrast, you only see the living bronzed in horrific tin-pot states (think Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and the like), as a way of cultivating a cult of personality. Yet, there it was, larger than life, a remarkably bad piece of art (complete with Nike branding) honoring Paterno, who was not only living, he was still coaching.
This statute was erected in 2001, three years after Paterno knew that Sandusky was abusing children, and in the same year Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy in the football locker room showers and told Paterno (Free Report). Paterno knew of what was going on and actually intervened to stop the university’s leaders from reporting Sandusky to the police. The statue to Paterno was the representation of the lies that too many individuals were willing to believe. As the Freeh Report makes clear, Paterno was an active and engaged participant in each of the investigations involving Sandusky, and vetoed reporting him to the police. And until November 2011, when Paterno was fired by the Board of Trustees, which had received an emergency spinal transplant, he was the de facto leader of Penn State, thanks to the lies, mythologizing and cult of personality.
Paterno maintained his power, both institutional and political,2 by his own supposed moral superiority and that of his program, athletic department and Penn State. It was a very smug and content echo chamber, where the true believers constantly reinforced each other that yes, “We are Penn State.” And like the devout everywhere, the true believers made pilgrimages to Mr. Paterno’s statue, to honor the man who told them the lies they wanted to hear and believe–even after death.
As I have written earlier, this culture is and was fairly toxic to non-believers, to those of us who aren’t particularly enamored with big-time college football. When I was a PSU student and then employee, there was always a level of violence brewing beneath the shiny, happy exterior that was Penn State. Consequently, when Penn State played home football games, I would flee, because the State College area became uninhabitable. It was too noisy and the entire area would gorge itself on both symbolic and actual violence, while the streets became updated versions of the ancient Roman “vomitoriums.” It was and remains disheartening because I received a life-changing, mind-expanding doctoral education despite the toxic football culture–not because of it.3
And now, the mythology that Penn State was morally superior to other institutions, and by extension, “Happy Valley” was similarly morally superior to other locales, has been shredded, the statue removed, and the penalties have begun to be issued. Some individuals who are still heavily invested in the lying strenuously object (Jay Paterno), but they are increasingly seen as marginal and inconsequential.
This entire story has the trappings of 21st century Greek tragedy. A football coach, football program and university claimed to be morally superior to all others, built much of that very reputation on the raped bodies of boys. These local sons were some of the most vulnerable members of the State College area, children who were in foster care or otherwise “at-risk” for adverse life outcomes. Children, whose parents were deemed to be “nothing”–because they were either inadequate or even toxic–were treated as less than nothing by important members of the Penn State community. These boys were not beloved children to be nurtured and protected, but instead they were literally left to the tender mercies of a serial pedophile.
The German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, whom I quoted at the beginning of this essay, spent her intellectual career focusing on the problems wrought by political and institutional evil. She frequently pointed out there were worse things than death, most importantly dishonor. Like Socrates, Arendt was clear that it is better to die honorably if horribly (see Hans and Sophie Scholl, for example), than to live in a state of perpetual dishonor (see the ordinary Germans who colluded with the Nazis). If Penn State, its leaders, and especially the late football coach Joe Paterno had acted honorably and reported Sandusky to police, the initial scandal would have been spectacular. And it would have lead to all manner of investigations into the program, athletic department and the larger university. There probably would been NCAA sanctions for lack of institutional control, and perhaps federal sanctions for the willful non-compliance with the Clery Act. Recruiting talented football players would have been made more difficult and even fundraising for the Penn State jeopardized. Paterno may have even been forced to retire. Clearly, the living would not have been bronzed. But fewer boys would have been molested and raped. Instead, by consciously choosing the dishonorable route, both the living and the dead in this horrifying saga of power, higher education and corruption, will serve as exemplars as how to not lead, and whose lives will be equated with dishonor.
The current leaders of Penn State have an opportunity to finally pursue an honorable path. But first and foremost President Erickson and members of the Board of Trustees need to stop yammering about “healing” and instead they need to vigorously pursue where the painful and horrific evidence takes them. Penn State had a serial pedophile on staff between 1969 and 1998; a pedophile who remained affiliated with the university until his eventual arrest in 2011. This means the university leadership has to fearlessly examine everything from 1969 forward, questioning their most hallowed assumptions. Until and unless the leaders of Penn State embrace a more rigorous investigation, one that may take several years instead of seven months (see Freeh Report), there can be no meaningful healing, no meaningful cultural change. Instead, it will all be calculated PR, spun out to appease alumni, students, and supporters, but it will do little to assuage the on-going pain of victims and, alarmingly, will do nothing to protect potential future victims. Instead, Penn State will default to the “Penn State way,” and in little time the institution will yet again “bronze the living” and move down a dishonorable path.
1. In memory of one of my doctoral mentors, Henry C. Johnson, Jr, Professor Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State University. Henry insisted that I read Arendt’s works when he realized I wished to become a professor of educational administration and supervision. In particular, he wanted me to red Eichmann in Jerusalem, since Arendt was deeply concerned with governmental and administrative evil. In the Fall of 1991, during my first semester of doctoral study, Henry observed that Penn State was “the Clemson of the Northeast” because of the well-known rot of Clemson’s football program and his frequently voiced suspicions of rot at PSU. He firmly believed that big-time collegiate sports were an existential threat to the life-blood of any serious research university. He would have had volumes to say about the historic problems of administrators run amuck at Penn State (which Paterno, Curley, Schultz and Spanier all were). Unlike the monsters detailed in the Freeh Report, Henry was a kind and gentle man, and I dearly miss him.
2. Paterno was deeply involved with local, state-level and national Republican politics. It was Paterno who invited then President George H.W. Bush to campus in the Fall of 1992, when I was a doctoral student. Bush gave a speech on campus and was even serenaded by PSU’s famous Blue Band. I attended this rally and it was clear Bush’s visit was about Paterno’s political clout, not then PSU president Joab Thomas. Additionally, there are questions as to why then PA Attorney General Corbett waited so long to seriously investigate Sandusky, why Corbett largely gave Paterno a pass when the initial arrests were made, why Corbett accepted money from Sandusky’s charity, the Second Mile,and then why he approved a grant to this same charity as governor, although he knew Sandusky would be indicted. It is a very complex and convoluted situation–but one needs to consider Paterno’s considerable political power within PA’s GOP circles, and perhaps, Sandusky’s.
3. Although I am high skeptical of Penn State’s cultural worship of all things related to intercollegiate athletics, I am a life-member of the alumni association. I do not think the school is “beyond change” and so I remain loyal, if loyally LOUD, critic.