If you live outside of Pennsylvania, I don't think you can quite fathom how omnipresent Penn State University is in our lives. Pennsylvania is a funny place, its' two large cities living at opposite ends of the state, but in reality a world apart. Here, in the east, we think of New York, Washington DC, and the rest of the I-95 corridor as our neighbors and rivals, while in the west it's Ohio and West Virginia and the rest of the Rust Belt. The Phillies play in the NL East, the Pirates in the NL Central, and nobody seems to think that's a lost opportunity. If you told most people here that Pittsburgh was in a different time zone, I don't think any one would question that.
We come together in two ways: statewide elections and Penn State. Not just Penn State football either; you can't live in Pennsylvania and not have a connection to Penn State, even if you're not a graduate. My brother-in-law went to Penn State, as did my oldest friend, and my stepfather is a professor in the Penn State system. That's just the way it is. Penn State is, literally and figuratively, at the center of the state I've called home for at least 30 of my 37 years.
So it's not just the Penn State community that's shaken by the scandal that broke this weekend, it's Pennsylvania, period. I've been able to think about much else, and I've been to State College once in my life. It's been a whirlwind of a week; it's hard to believe that, just a few weeks ago, Joe Paterno was being celebrated for becoming college football's all-time winningest coach in what turned out to be his last game. Just think about that for a second. Here's a quote, from SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel, from the story linked above: "In a sport filled with misguided, misbehaved or flat-out devious individuals, JoePa remains our moral compass, as he has for more than five decades." What a difference a week makes.
When the story first broke, late Saturday afternoon, my wife was out of town attending a wedding. When she got home that evening, and I told her about it, I speculated that this might be big enough to bring down Joe Paterno himself. Then, it seemed far-fetched, to think that the public career of the most revered figure in Pennsylvania this side of Ben Franklin could come to such a sudden, shocking, disturbing end. But it took less then a week for that prophecy to become fulfilled, and, as the details of the timeline of events covered in the grand jury probe into former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's alleged pedophilia were fully digested, it's hard to say such drastic action isn't warrented.
I don't have a whole lot to say about the Sandusky case itself; what is there to say, really? I do want to say, though, that much of the criticism that has been leveled against then graduate assistant (and now Penn State assistant football coach) Mike McQueary, allegedly caught Sandusky in the act of of an unspeakable crime; many question his courage, and his manhood, and claim that they would have acted differently. And, quite honestly, I don't think that's true. Most of us, when faced with trauma, go into shock; we act, or fail to act, not in the way we would imagine. Most of us are not heroes, and we certainly don't walk into a room expecting to find a horrible crime and prepared to act. So, yes, while the heroic thing to do would have been to jump to action and drag Sandusky off that boy, it's not necessarily the human thing to do.
But McQueary was absolutely, positively right in going to his immediate superior, Joe Paterno. Moreover, Paterno was right in referring the matter to his superiors, even if you subscribe to the belief that, at Penn State, Joe Paterno had no superiors. There are mechanisms within institutions such as this to handle such things, and this is why. After that, well, there's no question that that mechanism failed to an astonishing degree. It's mind-boggling to think that the university could have conducted a "thorough internal investigation" without involving the campus police. And you have to wonder how anyone could speak to McQueary about the matter and come to the conclusion that this was just a case of "horsing around" gone to far. And, yes, when Paterno and especially McQueary learned that the university powers that be were content to let the matter lie, that's when they should have taken matters into their own hands and gone to the police independently. There's simply no excuse for agreeing to what is, essentially, a cover-up. Even if one removes morality from the situation for a moment (and one shouldn't), didn't anyone stop to think that the ramifications of inattention now would be that much worse down the line?
But no one's actions make sense in this case. It doesn't make much sense that, upon one of them catching Sandusky in a similar act in the showers in 1998, the custodial staff decided it was best to keep it to themselves. It doesn't make sense that, when Sandusky admitted on tape to taking a shower with a boy on tape to his mother, the Center County District Attorney at the time decided not to press charges. Even more shocking, it wasn't a decade after those accusations that the charity Sandusky founded and used as essentially a locator service for his victims even decided to cut ties with the man. How could so many people have failed so spectacularly for so long?
While most of us have instantly drawn a connection to the massive coverup of similar abuses within the Catholic Church, I'm also uncomfortably reminded of Chris Benoit, the WWE wrestler who murdered his wife and son before taking his own life. There aren't a lot of parallels, really; Sandusky's crimes were carried out over a period of years, and, if not outright covered up, were at the very least allowed to continue unabated. Benoit, meanwhile, simply snapped without much warning. But the shock and the horror are the same, and the sense that nothing the man touched will be the same from that day forward. Because Benoit was not just a wrestler, but a champion and mentor to his peers. Chris Jericho still calls him the most important person in his career; watching Jericho tell his story on his recent WWE dvd, there's a clear hole in the narrative where Benoit belongs. But the WWE, as best they can, have tried to erase Benoit from their narrative, as is their right.
Penn State won't be so lucky. Because football is real, and wrestling is not, it's not so easy to dismiss the contributions of a monster. I thought that this piece from State College native Michael Weintrab really encapsulated the devastation among the Penn State community, particularly this passage regarding the 1986 national title game, in which Sandusky's defense was the key component in upsetting Miami: "I have the original video recording of it in my living room, and I have thought several times over the past couple of days about taking a hammer to it."
This is, unquestionably, the worst scandal in American academic history, and will forever taint the school, much the way Kent State University will forever be associated with the events of May 4, 1970. I don't really know how the university recovers; forget athletes, I can't imagine why any prospective student would want to go to State College now. As for the athletic program, more then just a clean sweep of personnel is needed; they need to blow up the damn buildings. Can you imagine having to use one of those showers now?
I'm not sure that I agree with the decision to remove Paterno now, rather then at the end of the year. While I don't absolve him of blame, and I understand the need to move on now, doing so shifts the narrative from being about Jerry Sandusky, his crimes, and his victims, to Joe Paterno. Yes, if Paterno remained with the team, the rest of the football season would be a circus. But it will be a circus regardless. I find it interesting that the attorney for the alleged victims criticized the Board of Trustee's actions, saying in essence "they don't want to be held responsible for ending Joe Paterno's career".
Of course, as I'm sure Paterno would readily admit, only he is responsible for his career ending in this manner. It's a shame that the legacy and reputation of a man that has accomplished so much, and for so many, should end so sordidly. But, on the other hand, as victims go, it's pretty far down the list.
EDIT: I don't want to undercut the seriousness of this whole thing with something trivial, but I just can't resist: Ashton Kutcher, somehow learning that Joe Paterno has been fired but oblivious to the circumstances, proves himself to be, definitively, the universe's biggest idiot.
ANOTHER EDIT: Sara Ganim, a crime reporter for the Patriot-News, had provided amazing coverage of the story; today, she provides a timeline of the entire case, and all the spots along the way where Sandusky was somehow able to avoid scrutiny and continue to have access to young boys. An astonishing amount of failures by people that are trained to recognize these signs and how to act. And yet, for most people, this case has somehow become a referendum on Joe Paterno.