Saturday, September 29, 2012

We Are Penn State


WE ARE PENN STATE. Our culture, as a whole, is one big, giant, Penn State. 

Penn State was deemed an institution in need of "culture change," and they spent a lot of money (6.5 Million) on the Freeh Report figuring out what that meant. The conclusion? Those in authority (i.e. Trustees, Paterno, and Spanier) took too little responsibility. Meanwhile, those who took responsibility were hindered because too much authority was granted to one man, Joe Paterno. And all this was made possible because the folks at Penn State loved football too much. Paterno ran free, and Sandusky under him, because in a place where football was king, Paterno was the King of kings.

I. The Place of The Place: The Culture of The Culture

That was the culture at Penn State; it is also the culture of The Culture. Penn State is a by-product of larger cultural trends. WE ARE PENN STATE. Our culture, as a whole, worships athletes and coaches. Our culture overlooks wild injustices for the sake of Saturday thrills. We grant political and even moral authority in the public arena to men whose primary achievements reside in the sports arena. Penn State is not some accursed plot of land in Pennsylvania -- it is our home, away from home. Penn Sate is not a foreign locale. Rather, as we were taught to sing as children, "This land is your land/ This land is my land/ From California, to the New York Islands."

Penn State got to this place by loving football more than justice. We, as a culture, got to this place by loving football more than justice; the road home involves loving justice more than anything: more than winning on Saturday; more than nabbing a Heisman; more than capturing a National Championship. More than anything. Right now, it's vogue to blame Joe Paterno. This may be just, but it's not justice. Justice involves taking the log out of our own eye. Justice involves blaming ourselves. "It takes a village" to nurture a child. It also takes a village to abuse one. The village which was the scene of Sandusky's crimes was not Penn State; it was America.

Sport fans are known to take credit for the victory of their team, "We won!" There's more truth to this than we realize. After all, without the fan, the team would have no resources (recruiting is expensive!), little team 'spirit,' and much less motivation. But, it's only right that we also take credit for our team's failings. That includes instances, like at Penn State, when those failings involve moral turpitude. Particular sins are always connected to a particular culture. The Culture permits and promotes certain virtues: "What is honored in a culture will flourish there (Plato),"  and excuses certain vices. What is honored in the culture of college football? in our culture as a whole? Winning on Saturdays, National Championships. Athletic Trophies. Bigger. Stronger. Faster. Virtue is victory. This causes us to excuse certain vices. That’s why there are so many recruiting violations and NCAA illegalities year after year after year after year. Why don't schools shape up? Why isn't their a culture change in college athletics? Why? Because there has yet to be a culture change in The Culture. The Culture still demands, "Just win baby." The athletic programs who lie, cheat, and bamboozle are not a separate culture; they are a culture within The Culture. They are acting on the values of that culture. This culture is OUR culture; this land is OUR land.

II. Media Culpa

Let's take a look into the sports world and see how the media is, at present, hindering the kind of cultural revolution that is needed to prevent future Sanduskys from striking. Let's take a look at the single most decorated sports scribe of this generation, Rick Reilly. Reilly is one of the more sentimental writers on the American scene; he may be the most sentimental of all. He celebrates the personal interest stories of athletes and coaches. His stories have a common theme: these are more than athletes or coaches; they are also humanitarians, 'real good guys.' Reilly has made a career by glorifying the virtues of athletes apart from athletics. This usually devolves into moralizing about how we can all be better people.  Reilly warms our hearts with good guy stories, and we dreamily gobble up this slick view of humanity. We want to love athletes apart from athletics because we already love athletics so much. We love because we love.

In a recent article, Reilly labeled Sandusky a coward. He expounded on his guilt, and judged it multiplied by the painful ordeal that witnesses had to undergo during his trial. This is the same Reilly tune: same girl, different dress. Still the incessant moralizing; still the focus on person apart from sport. Only, this time, the person did something real bad. Has Reilly ever stopped to ask, "How am I part of this?" Or, stopped to wonder if the instinct to glorify athletes is not just part of the problem, but the root the problem? the much bigger problem? 

What role did Reilly, and the media at large, play in the state of Penn State? What share of blame do they deserve for cultivating a culture of athlete worship? When the media is continually romanticizing athletes and coaches in giant front page print, is it no surprise that terrible crimes would fade in the margin. How about Reilly getting out there and doing a story on some really bad guys. We want the slick feel-good story. We don't want to face human depravity in our beloved world of sport. Well, we are not being realistic; we have fallen asleep -- we’ve been asleep long enough.  Sandusky surely is a coward, but it doesn't take much courage to say that now. It does, however, take courage to point out the those cowards running around in the sporting world right now. It does take courage to remove rose colored glasses right in the middle of the The Rose Bowl and point out, while the crowd of 100,000 boos, "These roses have thorns."

What was Robert Lipsyte said of Grantland Rice might well be said of many sports writers of our day: 

[T]he writer who likens a ballplayer to Hercules or Grendel's mother is displaying the ultimate contempt — the ballplayer no longer exists as a person or a performer, but as an object, a piece of matter to be used, in this case, for the furtherance of the sportswriter's career by pandering to the emotional titillation of the reader/fan. Rice populated the press boxes with lesser talents who insisted, like the old master, that they were just sunny fellows who loved kids' games and the jolly apes who played them.
Once upon a time, Penn State seemed to stand apart from the corrupt realm of college football. Penn State did things differently. They boasted high graduation rates, and a strict moral code. Like white knights, they wore white helmets. They donned simple uniforms, without names on the back, as a throwback to a less flashy and more self-less era of sport. Penn State was sports Americana: the Andy Griffith Show of college football. Every Saturday, they took us back to a time of simple morality and innocence. Penn State was, once upon a time, the beacon of integrity and moral uprightness in college athletics: the good guys. They stood apart from the rest: from schools like Miami where flashy individualism was prized and murky ethics indulged. Penn State was not only 'the good,' but the best. Then, with a collective sigh of horror, we realized, "The good guys are the bad guys." Yet, I doubt we have, as a culture, really considered the implications of this fall from grace. The implication is that we viewed Penn State all wrong all along. We were surprised that Penn State sinned because, somewhere along the way, we forgot that all are sinners. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We grew blind to the reality of the twisted human condition. The feel-good sentimentalism in the sports media didn't help our blindness.

In another article, Reilly, um, chides himself for buying into the hype surrounding Joe Paterno, "What a fool I was... What an idiot I was... What a stooge I was... What a sap I was... " Huh? This is sickly affectation. A pose. The real point is -- contrary to the words on the page -- "How wise I am... how holier... how high above it all." Note the past tense, and the far away voice, "I was..." Reilly is not condemning himself; he is condemning some guy who wrote puff articles about Joe Paterno a long, long time ago. He's not taking responsibility because he is even now writing the same kind of puff, and the same kind of sentimental feel-good 'sports is great 'aint it' shtick. Oddly, he's doing the opposite of taking responsibility throughout this article; he spends most of his words blasting Paterno. Is he really really pinky swear sorry for his crimes of deifying sportsmen? Does he actually think he has some culpability in the Sandusky crimes? If so, then it stands to reason he should make some form of restitution to victims. After all, he bellows, 

I hope Penn State loses civil suits until the walls of the accounting office cave in.

I wonder how he'd feel if someone brought a civil suit against him until the office of his accountant caved in. I wonder if he'd take the same hard line. I wonder. If his preening were more sincere, it might not come to a civil suit. He might file a sort of civil suit against himself and work to help the victims at Penn State. He might file a civil suit against himself and work to write more genuinely truthful articles.

In the same article, Reilly appoints himself judge and jury of Joe Paterno:

I tweeted that, yes, Paterno should be fired, but that he was, overall, "a good and decent man." I was wrong. Good and decent men don't do what Paterno did. Good and decent men protect kids, not rapists. 

Ah, but Mr. Reilly, isn't the point of your article that you contributed to the deification of Paterno? Do good and decent men protect men who don't protect kids? You not only protected such a man, you helped exalt him to a place where he needed no protection. It seems to me the distance between you and Paterno (and me, and we, and Paterno) is closer than you think. Sure, we want to distance ourselves from this scandal so that we can maintain our moral superiority. But it is just such an outlook which shows we have very little understanding of our moral position. Reilly blames Paterno; he blames himself for not blaming Paterno; then, with sleight of hand, condemns Paterno -- but not himself. The title of his article is, "The Sins of The Father." But who promoted Paterno as "Father." Jesus advised us not to call any man, "Father." The sins of the father? What about the sins of the sons? The sins of sports media? Reilly ends his denunciation of Paterno by passively aggressively calling him a monster and suggesting he deserved to go to prison, 

I was engaging in hagiography. So was that school. So was that town. It was dangerous. Turns out it builds monsters. Not all of them ended up in prison.

He doesn't seem to get that his hagiography was instrumental in laying the foundation of this dangerous town; his hagiography contributed to the formation of a monster. He's content to float along launching condemnation on Joe Paterno from his perch of moral excellence and self-rightness. Occasionally, he'll condescend to feel a 'lil guilt about the whole thing -- but this is not a real sense of moral responsibility. It's posturing. Posing. Preening. 

It is this sort of posturing we must be done with if we desire to address the real issue of Sandusky's crimes: they are OUR crimes. WE ARE PENN STATE. Penn State is not populated by mutants in a foreign country on an alien planet. It's populated by all of us; it is our home town, "This land is OUR land."

III. True Culture Change

What happened at Penn State is a cultural problem, and we as a culture are complicit in these crimes. Do we have the courage, not only to look at Paterno, Sandusky, and Spanier, but to look at ourselves? In what kind of culture are such crimes possible? A culture that worships the athlete. A culture that idolizes coaches. Perhaps Paterno had too much power. Who gave him that power? We did. You could name 50 other coaches in the NCAA who right now, at this very moment, have the same kind of power that Paterno had -- but we hardly  blink an eye. Things have changes at Penn Sate, but things haven't changed in the larger culture; that means the more things have seemed to change, the more they've stayed the same. Take a look at Nick Saban's statue at Alabama. Here's a statue for a relatively young man who is yet in the prime of his coaching career. He's literally a living legend. We have already bronzed him for eternity. Not too long ago, there was much debate: should Paterno's statue come down? I join the debate at an earlier stage. It should have never went up. 

Now is a time for justice, and for asking difficult questions about The Culture as a whole. 

*Parents, are we more excited when our child tells the truth under difficult circumstances, or scores a touchdown under difficult circumstances? Are we more thrilled by their performance in life, or their performance in sport?

*Who/what do we cheer and value in the public arena? Athletes? Athletics? Some athletes engage in the most grotesque behavior. But if they produce on the court/field, we are quick to forget about their moral failings. The cheering doesn't stop off the field if they keep producing on the field. What are our cheers really saying about our values?

*Is winning is everything? We have a perverse sense that winning is righteous. Actually, winning is not righteous. Losing may be the more righteous outcome if, for example, the loser refuses to cheat and the winner engages in foul play. 

*Consider the steroid era in baseball that produced the home run era. The media was ever so quiet. We the people of the United States of America were ever so amused. We ALL gasped as, one by one, balls flew into the night sky -- and NOW we are outraged? NOW? We are deriding the very men we once lauded as heroes for doing exactly what we cheered for them to do. We are threatening to keep these men out of the Hall of Fame. Where was this protest during the home run extravaganza of McGwire/Sosa? Or, the home run festival that was Barry Bonds? Now, the media is ever so loud in debating whether these men should enter; we as a culture are ever so loud in our condemnation. Our outrage is about 15 years late. As for the media -- how about this?  How about instituting a rule that only those media-ites who spoke out negatively DURING the home run party of the early 2000's have the privilege of writing negatively now, 10 years later, when the party has stopped. How about instituting a rule that only those Hall of Fame voters who denounced Mcgwire, Bonds, et. al. THEN can vote against them NOW. First stone, anyone? Anyone?

*One noble public figure in sport is Tim Tebow. Yet, he is derided by sports luminaries left and right. He is mocked mercilessly across blogs and even on Saturday Night Live. Why? What's with the impulse to attack goodness? 

*"Beware the military-industrial complex," Eisenhower warned – but what about the athletic-industrial complex that is NCAA sport? For that matter, what about the athletic-industrial complex that is the NFL, NBA, and MLB? We are complaining about poverty and health care – well, Minneapolis was just blackmailed into a mega-million dollar stadium. What if that money had been used for public health care? Makes ya think, don't it? Why wasn't that money used for public health care or to cure some social ill? Why? Cause -- this hurts -- we love football more than the poor. We love football more than anything. "The poor will always be with us," we say. Meanwhile, football only lasts for a few glorious months (every year).

Grievous crimes against children were committed at Penn State. They were committed on the watch of Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier, yes. Acknowledging as much is mandatory for addressing culture change at Penn State, and redressing wrongs of past victims. But these crimes happened -- not just on the watch of Penn State leaders -- they happened on OUR watch. Acknowledging as much is mandatory for addressing culture change in America. Mandatory, also, for sparing future victims. WE ARE PENN STATE. The moment we realize this will be the moment we begin the long, but sweet, path of repentance.
I, too, belong to the twentieth century, with a twentieth century skeptical mind and sensual disposition, with the strange mixture of crazy credulity in certain directions, as for instance in science and advertising (if you happen to cast an eye through the advertisements in your colour supplements you will see displayed there a credulity which would be the envy of every witch doctor in Africa) and equally crazy skepticism... That is our twentieth century plight. Let me then, in true twentieth-century style, begin with a negative proposition—what I consider to be the ineluctable unviability and absurdity of our present way of life... (we pursue our dreams) American style; 'grinding out our appetites,' as Shakespeare so elegantly put it, ever more desperately, with physical and even moral impunity, and spiritual desolation.

- Malcolm Muggeridge, "Another King."

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