BY AMY BASS
Professor of history at The College of New Rochelle
A moment of silence was the last thing they should’ve done. Well, actually, perhaps taking the field at all was the last thing, but bowing heads in prayer before the Penn State-Nebraska game on a lovely November day had to be a close second for the some 107,903 people gathered in Beaver Stadium.
Silence had already done so much damage.
To be clear, silence should not be to blame: the men responsible, and their institution, cannot be let off so easily. But silence was their tool – their weapon against the outside. And for Jerry Sandusky, silence was the key to his retirement package.
A little over two years ago, I used this space and the above title to express my disbelief and disappointment in the emergent Tea Party’s barely coded racist reactions to the Obama administration, particularly the “accusations” of socialism, Marxism, and – hideously – Nazism that were expressed via depictions of Obama in whiteface or dressed as a witchdoctor, or questions regarding his very ability to claim citizenship in the United States. The point was for someone – something – to emerge in response as loudly as the Tea Party had launched its attacks. And with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, I felt, finally, there was something loud – what Matt Taibbi described in Rolling Stone as “a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society.” With its decentralized leadership, its organic strategies, its all-encompassing message of protest, the silence, I hoped, was gone.
If the situation at Penn State is any example, the power and legacy of silence remains.
The horror of what has been alleged against Sandusky is beyond comprehension, and needs no rehashing except to ensure that we do not forget what is at the center of all this: forty counts of abuse against eight boys, beginning in 1994, and the use (perhaps even the creation) of a so-called charity, The Second Mile, to aid and abet. Be clear: what has been described is not a sex scandal. Tiger Woods was a sex scandal and the only people he hurt, as I have written elsewhere, were his wife and children. No, what went down in that place of higher learning was rape. Child rape. Pedophilia. Enough said.
And yet something else has pushed aside the alleged victims of Sandusky. As the university community began to bear the impact of the Grand Jury testimony, and people began to fall, and reactions began to emerge, it was apparent that a skewed, yet familiar, set of priorities was at work here. The headlines following the first announcements from Penn State’s Board of Trustees declared things in the “proper” Nittany Lions’ order: beloved, legendary, winningiest coach Joe Paterno was fired. Oh, and the president of the university. Oh, and some other really important people that don’t have statues paying tribute to them on campus.
The reaction to the Trustees’ statement reiterated the university’s hierarchy: student rage over – wait for it – the firing of Paterno. More than 4,000 students doing what students at Penn State have been known to do, but not in regard to what was quickly unfolding as an enormous cover-up of felony crimes. “We think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” one student told the television cameras in the midst of the chaos, “that he got fired over this sort of situation.”
There are many levels upon which to ponder and process this horror: to read the Grand Jury testimony and hear about what the victims endured; to think about the involvement of a youth charity in child rape; to witness the powers-that-be of a university act as if their space exists above the law, able to deal with felony crimes – perhaps particularly and most traditionally rape – within its own structures. And these details will take a long time to unpack, if ever, if one considers just how long it has allegedly been going on, and just who knew what, and when. Think about the timeline: By the spring of 1998, a year before “heir apparent” Sandusky surprisingly retired, the following knew about allegations against him: PSU Police, the State College Police Department, district attorney Ray Gricar, the Second Mile attorney, and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. In the next few years, that list would grow even longer to include the janitorial staff of the Lasch Building, assistant coach Mike McQueary (and his father), senior university administrators, and, of course, Joe Paterno. Oh, and then Gricar, who had decided not to prosecute Sandusky in 1998, went missing, his car abandoned, his laptop found in a river. The last searches on his home computer included “how to wreck a hard drive” and “water damage to a notebook computer.”
David Brooks thinks we are all wrong to be asking “How could they have let this happen?” But I am not asking that – it is the wrong question because the state of Pennsylvania and the United States of America have channels within which this can and should be sorted out, and history has demonstrated time again exactly how these things happen. What I am asking: in the wake of finding out, how could you all have reacted this way?
To be fair, students held a candlelight vigil for the victims of child abuse on the Penn State campus, albeit a full two days after the riots over Paterno’s firing took place, and a day before they again assembled to watch a football game. For those who do not reside in Happy Valley, this seems, at best, odd, but to understand how that game could take place, how fans could attend, and how anyone could have the (lack of) sense and sensibility to yell “We ARE…Penn State” in the midst of a moment of silence for the victims is to take a look at the bigger picture: the culture of football in America writ large, and the culture of patriarchy that pervades it. Regardless of which details remain blurry, this we know: the action at every level, until the Board of Trustees announced the firings, were designed to protect the Nittany Lions, a team that brings some $50 million to the school each year, to the point where an eye-witnessed rape of a boy on campus was allegedly reported to a coach instead of the police.
The need of Penn State to return to business as usual, to support – indeed, riot – on behalf of a man who turned his back on information that could have stopped the further abuse of children, is part of why Penn State’s following is so loyal in the first place, and why Paterno’s hold is so great. The same traditions that turned a football coach into a demagogue allowed the rape of children, in plain sight, to take place for over a decade. So in the aftermath of the appalling breaking news, Penn State, by and large, wasn’t wrestling with the consequences of a criminal case, it was wrestling with how it felt about itself, its fallen king, and its lost identity. And its gut reaction was to defend the institution, the coach, and the team in spite of…child rape. The contrast between a riot, a candlelight vigil, and a football game vividly demonstrate, according to alum Mike Missanelli of the Philadelphia Inquirer, that for too long, too many had been “drinking the Penn State Kool-Aid.”
Respected sports journalist Michael Weinreb has arguably come closest to providing reasonable insight as to how in the face of such overwhelming and ghastly detail, so many could still be making excuses for the institution, broadly, and Paterno, specifically. Weinreb knows well what it is like to be part of the alcohol-infused sense of community that often accompanies big time college sports. Weinreb, as someone who went to Penn State having grown up in Beaver Canyon, a faculty son, and a believer in Paterno’s “Grand Experiment” (which successfully ensured an emphasis on the student in student-athlete), understands what it means to love an institution “so unbelievably big that it can easily swallow your identity.” But still, for him the side of right was easy to come to: “there are things about Penn State that need to change, and the only way to do this is by starting over.” Upon reading the sorrow of one student, who said (again, in reaction to the dismissal of the coach) “Being accepted to Penn State felt like a family, and Joe Paterno was the father,” Weinreb admonished: “We’re on our own now….It’s time to grow up.”
The comparisons between sport and religion are many, and not just when a sex abuse scandal takes place at a university or within a church. Both are faith-based occupations, and we have known for a long time, via Buzz Bissinger, what football can do to a place. So what lies ahead for the Penn State faithful is to determine how to reconcile the Kool-Aid with reality. For an institution to be so self-aware that it chants “we are” as a rallying cry perhaps makes the path all the harder, because now what lies ahead is creating an understanding that what was believed in so deeply – so deeply it likely allowed all of this to transpire in the first place – does not matter in the wake of, quite simply, the worst thing ever to have happened. Penn State can’t buy its way out of this, like the Catholic Church largely has, because it doesn’t have the money. So what is left to do?
Reflect. Reflect on how, as Weinreb urges, to start over. Because regardless of all the good – the diplomas, the championships, the spirit – the Grand Experiment produced, it failed. And we are….horrified. And we are…begging you to give your institutional mourning a rest and fill that moment of silence with something that heals someone other than yourselves.
Amy Bass is professor of history at The College of New Rochelle. She is author of Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois and Not the Triumph But the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.