At Penn State, the danger of making gods out of men
On Thursday, when I walked onto campus, a young man crossed my path, a Penn State undergrad, moving zombie-like down the incline of the walkway, in the opposite direction of me. I had to stop to watch him, his eyes shut closed, a lazy goose step in his gait. The image has been seared into my neurology. Every time I close my eyes, I see him walking away, drained, aimless, his eyes closed, without recourse, without words.
When I arrived at Penn State to begin grad school last summer, I was unfamiliar with things like Joe Pa or Paternoville, the meaning of Blue and White, the chant of "WE ARE PENN STATE." When I say I was unfamiliar with these codes of collective honor, I don’t mean that I didn’t know them specifically — I had no idea such worlds even existed, generally. I went to a small liberal arts college in Ohio where I was barely aware we had a football team, where individuality was placed far above the idea of the collective, where dissent and cynicism was the code of honor, where there we sneered with disdain and skepticism at athletics or the reverence that surrounded the athletes of our high schools. I thought Football Universities were manufactured settings for Hollywood films. Not real places.
At Penn State, I became instantly intrigued with the myth of Joe Paterno, his godlike status, his place as icon. His image sits on the walls and in the windows of many local shops in the same way that Jesus’ image might be the centerpiece of a devoutly Catholic home. In many ways, I was envious of those who so fully engaged in the ecstatic religious experience that was Penn State football. I have always yearned for that sense of community. I am a woman who constantly looks for ways to find the extraordinary in the ordinary — to make the profane feel sacred. I like the ideal of constructing rituals and myths out of men. It’s what we do best as human beings — something that makes us so fascinating to me. It’s the one thing that I think binds us all together — our love for magical narratives based in real life.
The immense pride that many take in the honor and comport of our football team did not seem dubious or creepy to me at all. I enjoyed what it stood for — I enjoyed watching the narrative that Penn Staters spun around Joe Paterno and his soldiers. I heard that, before games, he would recite the Illiad in ancient Greek to his players, preparing them for the field. I loved that our football team was an allegory for so many great principles: grace under pressure, dignity, composure, and education, especially when athletics always seem to be at odds with education in the master narrative of our land grant universities. Joe Paterno, himself a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, where he studied the Classics (a secret passion of mine), was said to be the most academically-aware coach of college football, setting academic standards for his team that unparalleled any other in NCAA Division I sports. That made me proud and gave me material with which to teach. In my English 15 class, we dissected the rhetoric of Penn State football, through which I could teach metaphor and device and argumentation in a way that mattered to the lives of my students. As a writer, I got to see, first hand, how narrative played a real role in the lives of Americans in a way I found profound and elegant. A new spirituality.
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Still, I have not yet been to a Penn State football game, nor have I been anywhere near the stadium on game days. I don’t own any Penn State gear. I still see myself as an outsider in this culture, though I appreciate it and have found some pride in it. I have very slowly started to see myself as a part of it.
Then, the horrific news came about Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State coach who was being indicted for the sexual abuse of eight young boys. At first, I looked upon this news like I think many did — an isolated incident about an alleged pedophile who fit the profile of another mythic narrative: that of the monster. And I thought of the many cases I had written about during my stint as a journalist — the stories of men who committed terrifying acts. I always tried to write about these pieces in a way that attempted to understand who these men were and how these things happened, because, the myth of the monster occluded the real point of the problem and didn’t allow us to engage in an understanding of pedophiles that would allow us to try and stop the problem. I read the Sandusky stories looking for these sorts of answers as well.
But then, more news came. And came and came and came and is still coming. Very quickly, I watched the news about Sandusky and his vicious crimes misguidedly morph into headlines about Joe Paterno, Penn State’s God, its beacon of truth, its moral compass. Apparently, he had fallen from grace. The headlines and their accompanying photos suggested to me that Joe Paterno was the criminal here, not Sandusky. And I was curious about this turn events, so I started reading more closely. I read that the 28-year-old graduate assistant who had witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy in the Penn State locker room showers had gone to Paterno with what he saw. I read a lot of "he said, he said" about who said what to whom. I read that Paterno went to his superiors — if a God like Paterno could have superiors — and had the grad assistant tell them what he saw. I read that these superiors did not take this eyewitness to the authorities, but behaved in a way that suggests to many a corrupt cover-up in an attempt to preserve the sanctity of Penn State’s name, even if that still remains to be proven. I read that Paterno, as Penn State’s figurehead, now shouldered the greatest blame because he did not do more — he did not follow up, he did not go to the police, he did not do whatever we like to think we would do in such a situation. For a God, this behavior was dubious and suddenly we had to acknowledge that he was a man, a man with a great deal of power and failed to use it.
I also read the grand jury report which recounted a horrific incident in 2000, where a janitor witnessed Sandusky giving oral sex to Victim 8 in the Penn State locker room showers. The janitor was so upset by what he saw, his co-workers thought he might have a heart attack. Still, the police were not called in that incident either. Then I read about the 28-year-old who witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in 2002, and that he did nothing to stop it, but left, upset and confused by what he’d witnessed. I read about the wrestling coach at a local elementary school who stumbled into the gym to find Sandusky lying on top of a young boy, and again, he didn’t beat Sandusky within an inch of his life or call 911 right away. He left and contacted the principal later on. Of course, these men weren’t being called out in the press. That is because they were not gods — they were not in positions of power. Their failure to act was some how justified because they were not mythical creatures held to higher standards.
My first instinct was to consider what I would have done in these situations — if I had witnessed a grown man raping a small boy. I would have killed him! I would have pulled that young boy to me, wrapped him in a towel and called 911 from my car, where the boy would be sitting shotgun, me trying to tell him that it would all be OK. In my fantasy, I painted myself a hero. But I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t sure I would have behaved any differently in the face of such an atrocity. I’d likely have gone into shock, too. I’d likely have gone to someone else — someone I found trustworthy to tell me what to do. And I’m sure that person would have been at a loss as well, because, how does your mind process something so horrible? I tried to actually understand what happened here, rather than cast stones, because I live in a giant glass house that I am constantly aware of.
What that grand jury report suggested to me was not a full-scale cover-up to protect the name of Penn State football, even if that might be the case or the most exciting of stories to consider. Only a proper investigation will prove that to be true or not. What I read and learned was how we all, as human beings, fail our greater ideals about how we should behave in the face of real atrocity. I thought that this situation might be an excellent time to consider how we think we’d behave, how we might not behave that way, and what we can do to stop the systemic denial of pedophilia that plagues various institutions in our world — the church, education, athletics, etc. Now was the time to figure out a real course of action — a methodology for dealing with atrocity, if we could do that, even. To consider what was at stake for the psychology of men faced with inhumane atrocity. Would it be possible to act accordingly? I hoped so, but I wasn’t sure.
But the press would not allow us this conversation. Instead, looking to increase unique hits or sell papers, it clung to the image of our school’s icon, our celebrity, and twisted this story — it never allowed our school to engage in a real conversation about what went wrong and how we could use this as a chance to learn, to be better individuals — to truly engage the reason why we are all at Penn State, really. It all spun out of control into a bad game of telephone, where events were being miscast and misrepresented. When I talked to my father on the phone, I asked him if he’d heard about our scandal and he said, "What? About the boy who was raped in the shower while twenty people watched?" He wasn’t joking and I was disgusted by how things had spun so badly out of control.
In such a short time, I watched the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and message boards light up with hatred and outrage, with accusations that Penn State was little more than collection of pedophile enablers, that we were all implicated in this crime, that we were a bunch of blind meatheads, members of some weird football cult. I read my own colleagues write as much, even. Sandusky and the administration disappeared from our conversation — child abuse and its perpetuation disappeared from the conversation. Instead, Penn Staters felt like they were under attack and rightly so. In class, one of my students, in trying to engage the world in a conversation over what happened, was called a pedophile herself by friends of hers that are not at Penn State. The meaning of this moment got lost and the cause and rights of the real victims — those little boys — were occluded by the verbal victimization of our students and our school, placed in a position from which they decided to lash out. And though I am gravely disappointed and disheartened by last nights events, I know what it means to be defensive, to shoot from the hip. And again, I had to consider my own glass house before demonizing a very very small percent of our student body that headed into the streets last night.
I can sympathize with the outrage of the students who ran to protect their icon, their God — it made sense to me, even if it seemed misguided. What did anyone expect? This myth of Jo Pa wasn’t built in a day and people were wholly invested in it in a huge way. I saw it with my own eyes. Shit! I even started to get swept up in it, even while I was aware of the construction in all my haughty cynicism. And, honestly, I think part of the outrage of Penn Staters comes from that awareness, too. As people suggest that Paterno should behave like the God we claim he is, students were saying: he is not a god, he is a man, and he failed like one. But a real conversation about what really happened and what should happen now was wholly shut down.
I blame the press for misguiding the direction of this conversation — for making this about the icon of Joe Paterno rather than the systematic abuse of young boys and the failings of a system to handle the case appropriately. Instead, in a need for sensation, the press and those on social media outlets rallied against our icon because that was the sexiest headline. And, of course, the student body reacted with violent defensiveness. Real communication, real consideration for how Joe Paterno failed was never allowed to happen. These kids — this community — was never allowed to consider what this all really meant because everyone had to sexy up this story with a celebrity and his myth because, what fun would it be to destroy that narrative so thoroughly for the sake of greedy readers. It made for good television.
Well, I hope that everyone has fully enjoyed watching this spectacle from the outside — that your morbid curiosity and insatiable desire for public scandal has been thoroughly fed. I’m sure that it will disappear from your consciousness as soon as another sexy headline comes along to feed your addictions. But it won’t disappear for us here at Penn State. The identity of this university has been utterly ruined and for all the wrong reasons. The real issues have been thoroughly buried. And now, we don’t have healthy discourse on our hands, we have anger and frustration and camps of "Gotta Go Joe!" and "Stay Joe!" Now, we have an image problem that has occluded the real issue: that a man allegedly raped little boys and that an administration made aware of this fact failed to respond appropriately, making it possible for him to continue. Now we have some perverse narrative about a fallen God and a university that allowed little boys to be raped because our football team was more important.
I beg of all of you, help get the conversation back on track. Subdue the violence and vitriol. Encourage good conversation and help each other avoid generalizations. Find the facts and use them. Use this as a chance to make a better world — a world where we can talk openly and critically and peacefully. Anything but this.
Denise Grollmus a former writer for Cleveland Scene who now teaches at Penn State.
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