Tuesday, November 15, 2011

This post is not about Joe Paterno

The old man passes along an article from Joe Posnanski at SI.  An extended excerpt:

The last week has torn me up emotionally. This doesn’t matter, of course. All that matters are the victims of the horrible crimes allegedly committed by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. I cannot say that enough times. Sometimes, I feel like the last week or so there has been a desperate race among commentators and others to prove that they are MORE against child molesting than anyone else. That makes me sick. We’re all sickened. We’re all heartbroken. We’re all beyond angry, in a place of rage where nothing seems real. The other day, I called it “howling.” I meant that in the purest sense of the word — crying in pain.

So, two points to get out of the way:

1. I think Joe Paterno had the responsibility as a leader and a man to stop the horrific rapes allegedly committed by Jerry Sandusky, and I believe he will have regrets about this for the rest of his life.

2. Because of this, Joe Paterno could no longer coach at Penn State University.

Beyond these two points, though, I said I wasn’t going to write about this because I feel like there’s still a lot of darkness around. I don’t know what Joe Paterno knew. I don’t know how he handled it. I don’t know if he followed up. I don’t know anything about Paterno’s role in this except for what little was said about that in the horrifying and stomach-turning grand jury findings. People have jumped to many conclusions about Paterno’s role and his negligence, and they might be right. I’ll say it again: They might be right. But they might be wrong, too.

Read the entire thing, even if it’s 15% disclaimers.

Posnanski is right: All that matters are the victims.  This statement is obviously true – everything else pales in comparison to the plight of the alleged victims here.   

But it’s also obviously false – a point underscored by the countless editorials, columns, and blog posts I’ve stumbled across or had pumped across my Facebook or twitter news feeds.  Here’s a truth: If nothing matters – not Joe Paterno, not Penn State, not anything else – besides the victims, then what the hell are you writing about in your 1,500 word column?  And if, like many of these columns point out, this abuse is far more prevalent than we care to believe, why don’t all these horrific events get the same treatment? 

So that’s why this paragraph from Posnanski struck me the most:

3. We are in a top-you world where everyone is not only trying to report something faster but is also trying to report something ANGRIER. One guy wants Joe Paterno to resign, the next wants him to be fired, the next wants him to be fired this minute, the next wants him to be fired and arrested, the next wants him to be fired, arrested and jailed, on and on, until we’ve lost sight of who actually committed the crimes here.

Take a brief glance at the last week in the Detroit Free Press:  Mitch Albom tells us that Paterno’s legacy is not the issue, in an actually sorta-reasonable column. The uber-intellectual Drew Sharp says that Paterno should be fired if he “pleads ignorance.”  When Penn State does just that, Sharp says they should forfeit Saturday’s game as well. Then Rochelle Riley leaps into the pile, farting out these two paragraphs :

Firing isn't enough. Joe Paterno and every official at Penn State who knew of the allegations should be arrested and investigated as accessories to the alleged crimes.

It is imperative to know what they knew and when, what they did and when, what they did not do and why not.

Got that? Paterno should be arrested and then investigated. But he should be charged anyway.  Because, you know, children.  Also, I’ll move to Columbus if Riley so much as Googled the legal definition of “accessory” before typing that crap.  [For an actual analysis of the legal issues here, try this].

And for the finale, Albom, who must have been dying this week because he couldn't join the fray, opted for the old literary simulation of child rape:

Imagine you were 10 years old. A coach you trusted. A man you liked. A guy with white hair. An "older" person.

Imagine he led you. Imagine you listened. Imagine you didn't want to. Imagine you did what you were told.

Imagine the setting. A bathroom. A shower. Imagine he said it was OK. Imagine his tone. Imagine his eyes.

Remember when I wrote “If Mitch Albom wrote a column opposing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, I would probably hate it and disagree with it”?  Yeah. 


The events detailed in that 23-page grand jury report defy comprehension.  What allegedly happened to the victims matters far more than the game of football.  This is not reasonably debatable. 

But that is not what people are debating.  Weaving their way through all these words from all these writers across the interwebs are complicated questions of moral responsibility, legal culpability, and most of all, “why?”

And yes, I said “complicated.”  As much as everybody on the internet has all the answers, they don’t.  Dropping the “children were raped” smokebomb doesn’t give everybody carte blanche to rail away at whatever they like, free from criticism or scrutiny, lest the criticizer or scrutinizer be dubbed an enabler of molestation or a defender of child rapists.  Take, for example, this Grantland piece by Esquire’s Charlie Pierce that got beamed my way about 8 times yesterday.  After a brief reading of scripture, the fourth paragraph begins like this:

The crimes at Penn State are about the raping of children. That is all they are about.

Fair enough.  You want to keep the focus on this kids, fine by me.  Rick Riley pulled this off in a piece last week.

But it quickly devolves into a slaying of strawmen (has anybody seriously mentioned finding “closure” for Penn State?) and hysterical hyperbole (“It no longer even matters if there continues to be a university there at all”).  Here’s the pull-quote from the piece:

It is not a failure of our institutions so much as it is a window into what they have become — soulless, profit-driven monsters, Darwinian predators with precious little humanity left in them. Penn State is only the most recent example. Too much of this country is too big to fail.

Cover your ears, but what in the fuck does that have to do with anything Charlie?  What on earth does this story about a public university tell us about “profit-driven monsters”?  The outrage, save for the angry PSU mob the night Paterno was fired, has been damn near unanimous.  This proves our institutions are “soulless”?  And who did Charles Darwin molest?  Bank bailouts!

Oh and kudos for working in the unemployment rate and workforce unionization percentage along with an obligatory Catholic church rant.  But it’s all about the children, right Charlie?!?

Pierce isn’t alone though.  The venerable Maureen Dowd searches for half a microsecond and, lo and behold, finds the same villains:

Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique. And sports, as my former fellow sports columnist at The Washington Star, David Israel, says, is “an insular world that protects its own, and operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully.” Penn State rakes in $70 million a year from its football program.

It’s the mother of all coincidences – in the search for answers to tough questions complicated by a lack of information, these folks seem to find the same damn boogeymen they’re always finding.  Believe that if you want.  But don’t pretend it’s some profound kernel of “brutal truth,” and not the recycled bullshit it truly is.


Here’s what I can’t reconcile:

1) The number of people who, during my battle with cancer, told me some variation of “I don’t know how you’re handling it as well as you are. I have no idea what I would do in your situation,” and;

2) The number of people who know exactly what they would have done if they were in Mike McQueary’s or Joe Paterno’s shoes.  And, for that matter, the number of people who have all the damn answers about every aspect of this tragedy. 

Andrew Sullivan has the answers.  Megan McArdle isn’t so sure, and concludes:

But categorizing his act as depraved and incomprehensible is unhelpful.  It's unfortunately normal, and entirely comprehensible.  Saying otherwise allows us to write off what happened at Penn State to evil people, or a "culture" full of nasty, macho football lovers.  It allows us to avoid confronting the real problem, which is that people are evolved to form intense bonds that often trump more abstract principles . . . and also, to be very good at coming up with excuses for not doing what they should at great personal cost to themselves.

Of course, I know what we would all like to be true.  I know what I think I would have done.  And, most importantly, none of this excuses anything that allegedly happened.  But the fact that everyone seems to be trying so damn hard to convince everybody else that they would have taken the virtuous course of action seems to indicate the presence of doubt.  Who are we trying to convince?


I probably share your view of Jerry Sandusky.  As for the others, I agree with Posnanski’s two points above.  I think Paterno probably knew enough to do something about these unspeakable crimes, didn’t, and should have lost his job for that reason.  I think he deserves some level of moral scorn.  How much remains to be seen, because there are still a lot of unanswered questions.  The same goes for everyone else involved in what seems to be an incomprehensible failure of responsibility, including the detectives who listened in as an apologetic Sandusky allegedly admitted to showering with a young boy, the prosecutor who declined to prosecute him at that time, the janitors who allegedly witnessed another incident in 2000, and so on.  We’re all working off a 23-page document that leaves many, many unanswered questions.  As those questions are answered, moral and legal culpability will be more clear. 

But I’m also interested in the why and the how.  And no, I’m not interested in your half-assed answers about the “culture of college football” and “arrogance” and “profits” and a desire to “protect a legacy,” all of which have been around for a long time but have never been known for their ability to spawn massive child rape cover-ups.  Answering those questions will take time, but at least they will fill in the gaps here – What happened?  Why and how did it happen?  Who is responsible?  What can we learn?  How can we stop this from happening again?

But the wild rage?  Explaining the inexplicable with the same tired storylines we use for everything else because it saves us the trouble of thinking critically and confronting hard truths?  The posturing.  Trying to out-outrage the last guy.  What does that get us?  Great: you’re opposed to molesting kids.  Thanks for informing the internet. 

I don’t know what the “proper” response is.  There’s not much most people can do to help and show sympathy for the only people here who deserve help and sympathy – the victims.  That’s why giant prayer circles happen.  That’s why the “thoughts and prayers” line – and I’ve heard that one many, many times – roughly translates to “I know there’s nothing I can do but I’m going to do this anyway.”  It meant something to me, of course. But I was never under the impression that it would cure me. 

There’s really nothing good that can come from this.  There’s no response that would be adequate.  No amount of atonement that can repair the damage done.  But if we’re ever to stop this type of thing from happening in the future – and if I am to believe the statistics I’ve heard tossed about over the past week, that’s a critical task – we should do better than randomized rage and premature proselytizing.

1 comment:

  1. i won't be satisfied unless and until the state of pennsylvania (or is it a commonwealth? i forget) is ejected from the union with a flyover zone. and bomb the hell out of harrisburg if anyone even thinks of turning on three-mile island.

    and if i get all that, then i demand an immediate meteor strike on the independent principality (or perhaps it remains a commonwealth) of pennsylvania, centered on rick santorum's ... you know ... santorum.

    for the children.