As the previous post mentions, The Freeh Report was published this week. It does not bode well for the memory of Joe Paterno or Penn State. However, I am not here to talk about the report.
There was an article a few days ago on Deadspin about the aftermath in State College, and the Penn State alums, employees, and supporters, and how they could possible still support Joe Paterno.
The article was from an author under the guise of a psuedonym. He currently works at Penn State. He tried to explain how and why the Penn State community could still hold such “blind loyalty” towards Paterno. There is the expected amount of vitriol towards Paterno (and the author) in the comments section. Accusations of stupidity (Penn State, the author), selfishness, and downright malevolence (Paterno) are commonplace. I am here to discuss, and perhaps explain, those who cannot do it themselves. And to try and understand the headline of this article. I feel it is necessary to begin with this:
Paterno was a human in an almost inconceivable situation.
All the people involved in this ordeal are normal humans, biologically speaking (even Sandusky). While there are, of course, varying degrees, we can assume that they are all susceptible to basic mental and emotional human stimulus. They are, at least, affected by normal human emotions: skepticism, fear, confusion, anger, remorse, guilt, etc. Concerning the first incident, in 1998, if you are Joe Paterno and you receive secondhand information that your good (if not best) friend of the past several decades is a child molestor, what do you do? Especially a friend with the history and reputation that Sandusky had. The knee-jerk (and conveniently hindsight) reaction to immediately “do the right thing,” no questions asked, is naive, arrogant, self-righteous, and dangerous. While I am not absolving Paterno of guilt, barking holier-than-thou rthetoric is to ignore how Paterno accepted (or did not accept) and addressed his dilemma. I am in no way trying to defend Paterno and the Penn State administrators Spanier, Schultz, and Curley. I am trying to understand why they reacted the way they did. Which is to say, entirely human.
Are the assumptions that Paterno was protecting (albeit foolishly) a friend and colleague, or that he simply refused to believe that a man, who was so revered in the community for his service, could do such terrible things really propositions too impossible to believe? Or if Paterno was short-sightedly protecting his university and his program, does that make him as evil as Sandusky? Or does it make him a complicated human? As regrettable as Paterno acted (and as sure as I am that he would agree), it does not surprise me that he proceeded the way he did.
I realize there was more than one time that Sandusky’s transgressions were brought to Paterno’s attention. And I realize that Paterno appears to be the general on campus that controlled the entire circus. The Freeh Report is pretty damning evidence. While Paterno’s and the head administrators’ avoidance and silence about the incidents is reprehensible, is it implausible? Is it incomprehensible? Is it inhuman? Does it make them evil? It is literally impossible to try and understand these men’s motivations?
September 11th, 2001. The only other specific dates in American history that may be as significant are July 4th, 1776 and December 7th, 1942. I was fifteen on September 11th, 2001. A sophomore in a southern California high school. I remember the morning of. It was unique because when I woke up, my mom had the television on. She never had the television on in the morning. I remember watching the newscast. (Being three hours behind New York, the towers had already fallen.) I remember getting to school and walking into my basketball coach’s classroom, and all of my teammates were in there, watching TV.
….That’s about it. That’s all I really remember about September 11th, and the days immediately following. As far as I can tell, the rest of my day was unremarkable. I don’t remember if there was an announcement made. I don’t remember what I talked about with my friends. I don’t remember if anything was different at my house.
I will now admit something that will not make me many friends. September 11th did not affect my life. Not in a direct way, at least. I didn’t know anyone that died that day. Hell, I didn’t (and still don’t) even know someone that KNEW someone that died. The biggest impact on my life September 11th had concerned air travel and security levels on the National Mall. I cannot relate to anyone who was personally and immediately impacted by the tragedy.
But how could I? How can I? It happened 3,000 miles away, in a place I hadn’t been to yet, to a bunch of strangers. And I was FIFTEEN. However, I can throw all the rationalization and evidence at you to try and make you understand my point of view, and you would still think I am an unpatriotic asshole. I know that it was a tragedy unlike the country had ever seen. I know that it changed the course of history. But it feels like it happened in a history book. I have even been to Ground Zero, and still, it’s like visiting the Vietnam War Memorial. It feels like it happened in a parallel universe.
While admitting to something like this is not necessarily the best of decisions (especially in a forum like this), the reason why I feel like this is, I think, fairly simple:
I didn’t know anyone involved. It wasn’t personal.
Understanding human motivation is a complicated, and sometimes scary, process. There has been a point in everyone’s life when their morals were put in direct crisis. How can one assume to know how they would react to a situation where basic morals, pillars on which one leads their life, are tested? I have specific experiences (which I will choose not to divulge) where I turned in a less-than-admirable performance. I have been vindictive and venegeful. I have been selfish and arrogant. I have been jealous, prejudicial, and judgemental. It is a confusing, embarrassing, intimidating, frightening moment when you realize how far you actually allow yourself to go. And for what reasons.
Just like September 11th was to me, Sandusky’s crimes were to Paterno. They were not personal. He did not know the children being attacked. He did not know their families. What did Paterno know? He knew his school. He knew his football program. THAT was personal to him. It was tangible to him. It was how he identified himself. And although now it seems ridiculous, ludicrous even, for Paterno to be so afraid of the bad publicity and attention that exposing Sandusky would have brought, Paterno’s life, and everything he ever worked for, was under attack. Men have killed, MURDERED other men, for less. Paterno had no way of estimating the backlash that would come from him personally contacting the authorities. So he did what he thought was the safest thing, and it worked, for fourteen years.
I am not excusing what Paterno did. I am not absolving anyone of any guilt. What transpired in Happy Valley constitutes the most terrible record of events in college athletics ever. The people who deserved to be punished have been, or will be, punished. I am just trying to grasp the breadth of being human. The gray areas. The most inexplicable questions.
I have been in situations where the very fabric of my being has been tested. I hope that Paterno was in a similar predicament. I hope that every day that went by where he had to deal with Sandusky, every time he convinced Penn State officials to stand down, was another day that he scared himself. Another day that he went home, looked in the mirror, and was embarrassed, mortified, terrified, and ashamed. Because it IS terrifying. It IS humiliating. The feeling of willingly compromising your morals is like losing your identity. You are no longer the same person.
The Freeh report prooves the headline of this article. Joe Paterno. Decades of success. A deity to thousands of people. Millions of dollars donated to higher education and raised for charities. A beacon of light and goodwill worldwide.
Could it be that people, you yourself, are more complicated than anyone can ever imagine?
Unequivocally, unbelievably yes.