The PSU Story: An Autopsy

So, if I’m begging everyone to have good conversation about the events here at Penn State, I want to keep that good conversation going by entering into it further – with the facts and smart reasoning, just as I’ve asked everyone else to do, too. A lot of people aren’t going to listen to me (and that’s cool, because I realize that I’m not necessarily worth listening to), but those that are, here’s what I’ve got for you today:

Some people have said that my piece for the Village Voice Media Papers, “The Danger of Making Gods Out of Men,” placed too much blame on “the media” and not enough elsewhere. I agree: I handed the press a pretty hefty tab. But I wasn’t blaming the press for the crimes that have allegedly been committed here in State College. It was for the scene and the conversation that the press inspired – one filled with vitriol and rumors and avoided the issues: that eight boys were allegedly raped by a former coach and that various witnesses to some of these incidents did nothing, including some important people on our campus.

I feel that the real issue was lost because the press was too busy flashing photos of Joe Paterno everywhere instead of making us more aware of 1. Jerry Sandusky, the perpetrator and 2. The administrators, like Tim Curley and Gary Schulz, who have been charged with perjury. I believe that this happened because Joe Paterno is the biggest name on our campus and that his take down would provide the best, most salacious news.  In doing so, we, as a community (PSU; State College; online; anywhere, really) never got a chance to talk about what was really happening here.

Before any of us could even wrap our heads around the charges against Sandusky, people in the press (and in the anonymous posts below these stories) were asking for Paterno’s head. I think that was a shortsighted way to react. Why? Because it placed all the blame of this huge situation on one man, simply because he is a figurehead – a symbol. This was a system of failure, not the misgivings of one man. Obviously, firing Paterno doesn’t stop or stem the real problem. There were a lot of administrators, police officers, investigators, and attorneys who knew about Sandusky’s alleged crimes and failed to stop them. I want to know how they botched this so badly. And I think that by simply saying “Joe’s gotta go!” and then firing him, we are allowing those who shoulder a lot of the blame to evade their responsibility in this by allowing Paterno to take the fall. It’s cowardly and disgusting. And, not only did the press allow the Board of Trustees to do this, but it encouraged such a distraction. What I mean by allowed it is that – it’s the press’s job to ask good questions like “why is Paterno being fired when numerous administrators have been cited for knowing about what was going on and doing nothing?” Those questions haven’t been asked, because everyone in the national conversation is too busy arguing over Joe flippin’ Paterno. Just do Google searches and the number of hits will bear out how misguided this discussion has become. 

Furthermore, I believe that the Board of Trustees at Penn State fired Paterno at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday not because it was the right thing to do, but because of the pressure from the national press. And it was a stupid move for several reasons. First, Paterno had not been criminally charged with anything, and, as such, his firing may, itself, be illegal if an investigation doesn’t bear out our assumptions. Second, firing Paterno simply sent our school into a frenzy, which they had to know would happen. Paterno’s firing didn’t answer any questions (which still remain to be asked or answered). It merely validated the public’s hasty demonization of Paterno, and it made the Board of Trustees look cowardly, unreasonable, and suspicious. I think the situation would have better handled had the Board of Trustees put all those associated with the case – i.e. named in the grand jury report – on temporary leave pending a thorough investigation. By firing Joe Paterno over the phone in the middle of the night before any of us even knew what was going on, the Board of Trustees fed the media hysteria as well as the confusion of our school.

I do not defend Joe Paterno’s failure to respond more effectively to this situation. As the beacon of integrity, the figurehead of honesty, and the moral compass of our school, I think that he should have stepped down. But, I think, it would have been wise and much more effective to let him step down as an example to our students – a show that he was taking responsibility for his lack of action. I truly believe he would have done this. But he wasn’t given the time.

Also: when, in class, I talked with my freshman students about the Wednesday night riots which followed the news of Paterno’s firing, they told me that when they heard of Paterno’s firing, they all ran to downtown to be with their schoolmates, not to be violent, not to show outrage over the firing, but out of a need to be with their community during this confusing time. This was huge news for them and it all seemed to be coming at them a tad too quickly, before answers or reasons had even been given. They, as well as fellow faculty, told me that all was peaceful that night until the police arrived. Of course, the news reports did not show you these studentsthey showed you the gaggle of meatheads that knocked over a van, pulled down lampposts and shouted idiocy. Somehow, those kids ended up standing in for our entire community. In class on Friday, when my students and I talked about effective and ineffective discourse with regard to this situation, the first thing they deemed as ineffective was “RIOTING.” And they begged each other to avoid such situations.

A lot of people have said that the 10,000 strong candle light vigil held on Friday night was a sorry attempt at correcting our image. I’m sorry people feel this way. This vigil had been in the works for a while – it was a student-planned event, and as such, planning takes time. Riots do not. The rioters did not speak for the majority of us here at Penn State – they embarrassed us and upset us, too. Of course, this voice wasn’t aired anywhere (except for on youtube). My students were also disheartened because many of them had been working hard to raise money for child abuse awareness as soon as the news of Sandusky hit and their efforts were totally overshadowed. And it wasn’t that they wanted attention for their good deeds, but they didn’t want to be cast as evil villains either – which they all were. On Friday, I heard more news of disgusting verbal attacks on them by friends. One person was asked “How’s everything going at Penetration University?” Several said they’d seen the same joke posted to their Facebook walls: “If an older woman who likes young boys is a Cougar, then an old man that likes young boys is a Nittany Lion?” Really?!? Wow. Just, wow.

I also want to point out how this thing got twisted by the national media from the beginning. The story first hit the local headlines in March. I didn’t hear about it either because I don’t tend to pay close attention to local State College news, though now I sure do. The national media only flew into a frenzy over this case when one outlet decided to spin this as a celebrity football cover-up story. NOW that was news. I find it funny that so many people railing against Penn State as an entire institution claim they are doing so from the position of child abuse awareness. Really? Where were you in March? Child abuse doesn’t make the front page anymore, because, sadly, it isn’t considered news, not even for you victim advocates out there. But Joe Paterno, a football deity, overtly covering the atrocities committed by his pedophile friend is BIG NEWS – even if that isn’t the real story. 

People say they are reading the grand jury report, which makes me worried for the critical reading skills of America. In that report, it states that McQueary went to Paterno and Paterno immediately contacted his Athletic Director as well as the man who oversees the CAMPUS POLICE. He didn’t call in the state troopers, but he did go to the school authorities, all of whom horrifyingly dropped the ball. I still feel Paterno could have done more and, as the paragon of integrity at our school, should have. I also find the 1998 investigation and subsequent retirement suspicious. But I don’t think Paterno is a criminal and I don’t even pretend to know the reasons why he didn’t do more. I can only guess. Denial? The name of Penn State? I dunno. That is to be discovered and I’m reserving judgment until it is. And while Paterno is the biggest name on our campus, I don’t believe that whatever he says goes. This is a HUGE institution. I can’t even tell you where the football locker rooms are and I’m on campus everyday. I have never seen Joe Paterno. I have only met one football player (who was my waiter at his parents restaurant and incredibly nice kid). And, finally, Corbett was obviously not intimidated by Paterno enough to cut half of our state funding back in the spring. Assumptions are not facts, my friends. And a big name doesn’t necessarily mean lots of administrative clout. In fact, it often means little clout. Remember: there is always a man (or many men) behind the curtain. And those are the men I want to know more about.

But since we’re all so big on naming this before an investigation is conducted, here’s my conspiracy theory: this was a full scale cover up on the part of the administration not for the name of football (gimmie a break!), but in the name of money. Revenue, people, revenue! Our football team not only brings revenue from ticket sales, etc, but it is the point around which alumnae rally and are encouraged to keep giving to our University. It is the biggest moneymaker we have. Sorry, but we’re not nor never will be Harvard. We are a land grand University, built to teach farm boys how to read and our people love football. And, frankly, I have no problem with that, because, thanks to those people, I’m studying in the 4th best English Department in the country. But, at the end of the day, money corrupts absolutely, if the economic events in this country tell us anything. People are right: it’s power before people. But it’s not Joe Paterno’s power. It’s something much, much greater than him. Much greater than football.

My other attack of the press, in general, has been all the rumors and assumptions it has been printing. People have responded to my criticism with “but the press can’t print lies!” Oh, my dears, that is where you are absolutely wrong. The press can print insinuation, assumption, allegations. And it can even print straight up lies. I know this personally. Last year, in Rolling Stone magazine, I was falsely accused of stealing money – a criminal act. Rolling Stone, of course, printed a correction to this allegation – in their letters section a week later. No one read it, of course. So, why didn’t I sue them? Because it is an extremely expensive failure to file a slander/libel lawsuit. In court, one must prove that there is malicious intent behind the lies in order to prove slander or libel. It’s nearly impossible. And it only gets harder when you are a public figure. Also, the press has cleverly nuanced ways of insinuating guilt that keeps it free and clear of accusations of false statements. How about this article that was run about a possible connection with the missing DA who investigated Sandusky? And then this article about a high school football player who claimed that Sandusky was still recruiting for Penn State? Or this one about Sandusky pimping out boys to wealthy PSU donors? Furthermore, much of what has been stated has been stated in the form of editorials and columns – opinion pieces, which have freely accused Paterno of doing something criminal, though no charges have been brought. For now, all we know is that Paterno didn’t do enough, which is ethically wrong. But was this ethical failure devious or misguided? We still don’t know.  

And here’s what is dangerous about trying people in the press: it ruins lives and reputations for the wrong reasons. Let’s take the Duke Lacrosse case as one example. After the press basically tried the players and their coach in the press for an alleged gang rape of a young woman, the coach was fired, the players, kicked out of school, their futures, ruined. Of course, when it came out that there was no rape, no one cared. And to this day, those men and that school must carry the stain that the press gave them in order to sell papers and gain viewers.

I have even been guilty of allowing the press to sway me into wrongly casting a guilty verdict. Remember the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn? The man who was running for the French presidency, but had to drop out of the race because he was being accused of raping a maid while staying in a New York hotel? I do. Because I’m ashamed of how I reacted. When I first read about it, I was sure the man was guilty. I remember the French press was outraged over how the American media was handling it, largely because, in France, it is a crime to print a photo of a suspect in handcuffs before he has been found guilty. “Bullshit!” I said. And then, it turned out that this maid was a liar and was hoping to cash in on her allegations. He was found innocent. Still, he had to drop out of the presidential race and he still bears the stigma of being a predator because we tried him too quickly.

More importantly, a lot of people are reacting to the events at Penn State from a place of self-righteousness – from the position of “I would have done this!” Well, sorry to break it to you folks, but research proves that you would have done little more than the janitor or the graduate assistant who witnessed these attacks. And I think it’s important that we all spend less times imagining ourselves as false heroes, but as the frail human beings we really are. Bravery is rare, because bravery calls for a certain amount of self-destructive behavior – the sort of approach that goes against our instinct for survival. To be brave is to act without self-interest, to put your ass on the line for the greater good. And, sorry, but the great majority of us are cowards. Instead of thinking about our false heroism, let’s all consider why and how we might fail and then discuss how we can ensure less failure in the future.

The self-righteous position from which people are attacking Penn State also brings to mind something I heard a professor say last semester. Dr. Tina Chen, a professor in our English Department, was talking about the ways in which we teach reading. Usually, we teach children to read books through identification – by identifying with characters that are relatable. Often, these characters are sympathetic, they are victims, they are the ideal versions of us. They aren’t criminals, for the most part, and if they are, their justifications are incredibly poignant. Dr. Chen worried that this was not always a good thing to encourage, because it allowed us too easily to escape blame for the atrocities committed by man. People commit heinous acts – people like us. And it’s important to try and understand why, so that we might never do the same. It is important to search the darkest parts of our own souls, because then, we might finally stop some of the insanity that has plagued our world since the beginning of time. For me, I find it highly problematic that people claim to speak from the positions of Victims 1-8. As spectators of this, none of us are the victims and none of us should pretend to be them or speak for them. And we should be careful to set ourselves too far apart from the men who failed in this situation – because we are only perpetuating such inaction by failing to examine our own potential for failure. If you want to do something for these victims, read this article.

Finally, people have said that they understand my position because I am here, because I am close to these students and am invested in my institution. And these people are totally right, though I think they are implying that I’ve been blinded in some way. However, I am even more sensitive now to the press’s hasty paintings of complicated situations and how that truly impacts the lives of people directly. And thank God for that! 

My students and I left the classroom on Friday with a very specific plan. We promised each other to steer clear of violence and name calling. To stay focused on the real issue: the victims of Sandusky’s sexual attacks. To think about what we should do if faced with a similar atrocity. We talked about how we could still uphold what Joe Paterno and Penn State football has long stood for and that we should do exactly that. We also promised each other to always be careful before judging, be compassionate and understanding and to act from those positions rather than from places of anger. To avoid generalizations and to speak with reason. In the end, this horrible situation has been an incredible learning and growing experience for us here at Penn State. We are all doing a lot of self-reflection, having very meaningful conversations, and we are focused on creating an even better community. Hopefully, you can all do the same before things have to get to this point for you to do the same.