I’m not a big football fan. Honestly, the fact that the majority of my roommates partake in their ‘fantasy football’ leagues gives me good reason to watch a few hours of ‘America’s sport’ and enjoy the competitive indulgence that is football. In many ways, football does make me feel at home, as a college student, as a Michigan wolverine. But today, football feels more foreign to me than it ever has.
Pennsylvania State University, Jerry Sandusky, and Joe Paterno are flooding the news. Well mostly ESPN and Sportscenter dailies. But while this coverage is indeed justified, is it targeting the right subject? As more details regarding the sex abuse scandal keep pouring in, the realities get more and more harrowing. Eye opening and jaw dropping testimonies from the victims themselves have arguably had a sizeable effect on those who knew of the crimes being committed but remained silent, at the least resulting in many moments of silence for those who were victimized by the former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
But instead of focusing on what should be done in the future to curb such sexually deviant acts from occurring again, it appears many media outlets are concerned solely with one resounding outcome of the scandal; football and its legacies.
For 46 years, Joe Paterno has been leading the Penn State Nittany Lions into University Park, amassing the largest record of wins in Division 1 college football history and fostering a legendary football program with a revered past. On November 9th, 2011, Paterno was fired along with other members of the football coaching staff amid public pressure on the governing body of the University.
Rather than taking a backseat, Paterno became the paramount topic of the sexual abuse scandal. While many discussed his tarnished football legacy, others were puzzled by his inability to report to able authorities the misdeeds that were happening in his house, the institution of the Penn State football program. Ultimately, the matter of the reputation of a university and its athletic department came full circle.
It can be regarded as public knowledge that many schools depend on their athletic programs for alumni support, revenue, and consistent in-flows of prospective students. But the emphasis of athletics over education has many critics in frenzy. As Tufts Professor Sol Gittleman noted, “You’re making a deal with the devil…its big-time money, and these programs become larger than life”. Allen Sack, another critic of major college sports, agreed. “This happened because Penn State decided it was going to put football above all the cherished values of higher education…in this instance, the entire university bowed to football’’ Where Football Rules.
“Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
This prominence of reputation and recognition is in opposition to Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance in almost every aspect. As individuals, we must not look to others in order to maintain where our place is in society and how our faculties should guide us. However, the Penn State football program, even the university itself, is not an individual institution. Many contend that it is a ‘family’. But as Emerson wisely pointed out, “It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. Is not a man better than a town?” (Self-Reliance, 38). We should not view the governing board at Penn State, Joe Paterno, the athletic director Tim Curley, and others who failed to report the atrocious crimes of Jerry Sandusky as selfish silence that was meant to retain their images, but rather, the image of the University. “The reputation for integrity that Paterno and Penn State developed has been a shield of sorts. It deflected criticism and potential problems.” Veil of Secrecy. With the fallout of such a prestigious program and its standard forbearer, heavy consequences were a definite possibility.
Nevertheless, the outcome of this silence led to the smearing of not only a university’s reputation but also its integrity as a whole. Those who kept the child abuse a secret failed not only themselves as individuals but as members of the greater Penn State community. They did not act on their own private perceptions of decency. “Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due” (28). The involuntary perception here is that of one’s morality and ethics, which in conjunction with conventional morality is not only appropriate, but necessary. Emerson knew that at times conventional morality could be faulty, but here I argue that it embodies his doctrine of ‘trusting thyself’. The board of trustees and administration at Penn State likely understood the implications a sexual abuse scandal would have on their revenue stream and legacy. In the end, they embraced what Emerson knew inhibited trust in oneself; a recognizable consistency- “a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them” (24). To the administration and to many others who recognized the legendary status of Paterno’s tenure as coach, acknowledgment of such a shameful crime was an unbearable option that would sully the school’s name for years to come; the secret had to be kept at any cost.
At the same time, it is this ‘hero worship’ for Paterno that has done even greater damage to the University’s image. The fact that students rioted because of his dismissal as coach, and that the university still held its game this past weekend against Nebraska, with students cheering wildly and wearing blue shirts to honor Paterno’s memory as coach, is an even more shocking manifestation of this lack of individualism. A ‘moment of silence’ for the victims of sexual abuse to me does not justify such hypocrisy. Emerson would cringe at the sight of individuals eulogizing a man who’s history, while seen as prophetic, is morally unsound. “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (22). I think some of these students may need a new constitution to adhere to.
According to Emerson, the self-reliance of man depends upon his ability to take the ‘high road’ and stand apart and oftentimes above group norms and opinions. Paterno’s actions were not entirely lacking propriety or good judgment. His actions were merely insufficient. That he himself was not incited to greater action suggests either timidity in dealing with the matter or merely dismissing its importance. When someone has knowledge that a member of his or her staff is engaging in such repugnant behaviors and that staff member is still part of the team is confirmation of the dangers associated with the group mentality so characteristic of sports and teams in general. That the student body rallied so heartily for him unfortunately is further acknowledgment that the student body is an extension of the sports team mentality.
“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater” (21).
Penn State exists as a society just as many other colleges and universities in the nation do so. For the protection of its society, individuals did not come forward for the sake of reputation. In the end, it is this stubbornness that led to this society’s downfall and apparent fall from grace.