Hey, world, quit being surprised by Paterno’s ethical bankruptcy
In September 2005, Dr. Vicky Triponey, Penn State University’s then-Standards and Conduct Officer, sent an exasperated e-mail to the university’s then-president, Graham Spanier. “I would respectfully ask that you please do something to stop this atrocious behavior,” she wrote, “before this team and an entire generation of Penn State students leave here believing that this is appropriate and acceptable behavior within a civil university community.”
She wasn’t referring to the scandal of Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse and the massive cover-up that enabled it, which wouldn’t come to light for another six years. But she was talking, in this e-mail and a series of others, about Joe Paterno and his impenetrable football empire, which was already accommodating criminals, excusing violent behavior, and using the JoePa brand and its earning power as weapons against anyone who dared to question or criticize.
In the days since the damning Freeh report was released, I’ve seen a lot of writers, and heard a lot of sports-radio hosts, wrestling with the question of how to reconcile their long-held reverence of Saint Paterno with the now-indisputable evidence of his complicity in the horrific Sandusky scandal. How, they wonder, can any of us wrap our minds around the revelation of so fatal a flaw in so shining a symbol of integrity? Whom, they ask, can we ever idolize again, now that our icon of All That Is Right With College Sports has been revealed as a fraud?
To which I say: Give me an effing break.
I’m sorry—did that sound harsh? It’s not as though I don’t know what it’s like to have your heart broken by a sports star you once loved. But those who are shocked by the unraveling of the JoePa mythology, and especially those who make their livings writing and speaking about sports, don’t get my sympathy; they get my scorn for having blithely bought into it in the first place, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that “success with honor” was as flawed a marketing slogan as “a chicken in every pot.”
Here are just a few of the “honorable” moves Paterno pulled during the latter part of his tenure at PSU:
- He routinely and aggressively skirted university disciplinary processes for football players, causing Triponey to write in one e-mail, with chilling prescience, that “Coach Paterno would rather we NOT inform the public when a football player is found responsible for committing a serious violation of the law and/or our student code, despite any moral or legal obligation to do so.”
- He allowed a PSU player to play in a bowl game, despite the fact that the player had been expelled from school after being charged with sexual assault (he was later acquitted).
- He explained away sexual-assault allegations against a different player as a likely miscommunication resulting from the popularity of the PSU football players.
- He defended six football players who broke into an apartment and severely beat another student, arguing that the school’s inquiry would compel them to testify against one another and thus damage their team chemistry. Ultimately, the students were suspended for the school’s summer quarter (so that they didn’t miss any games) and required by Coach Paterno to spend two hours cleaning the football stadium.
- Between 2002 and 2008, 46 PSU players were charged with 163 separate crimes, suggesting that their understanding of “honor” had less to do with the importance of living a virtuous life than with the confidence of knowing they wouldn’t be held accountable in the arena they valued most.
- He hired and supported PSU women’s basketball coach Rene Portland, who for two decades publicly enforced a no-lesbians policy and a paranoiac reign of terror against gay and insufficiently feminine players, in violation of the law and the university’s own nondiscrimination policy. Portland’s unabashed witch hunt ruined lives and was the subject of both a lawsuit and a documentary film. Paterno and other PSU officials knew exactly what was happening and did nothing.
Follow the links for more. Yes, the Sandusky story dwarfs the others in scope and horror, but the differences are of degree, not quality. This isn’t new information; the Portland story, particularly, has been common knowledge for years, and those who gloss over it as they tell their “say it ain’t so, Joe” tales are either woefully uninformed, consciously choosing their own narrative arc over the facts, or simply unconvinced that enabling the abuse of lesbians and enabling the abuse of children exist on the same spectrum of despicability. Even if I’d been completely and devastatingly taken by surprise by Paterno’s role in the atrocities of the past year, I like to think I’d resist the urge to bemoan my coming-of-age arc publicly, both out of embarrassment over my own credulity and out of respect for the many victims of PSU’s permissiveness who never had the luxury of naivete.
To be shocked and appalled by the callousness and the breadth of the Sandusky scandal is entirely appropriate. But to be shocked that Saint Joe could have been involved in any manner of cover-up that privileged the achievements of PSU’s sports programs over the lives of innocent people—well, that just means you weren’t paying attention.
And if you’re paid to pay attention to sports, then perhaps it’s time to stop talking about the death of your innocence and start talking about why the media, like most of the Happy Valley community, was only too glad to play along with the “success with honor” story until it took a twist too terrible to ignore.
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