When decision makers at Pennsylvania State University decided to tear down the seven-foot statue of legendary football coach Joe Paterno, I expressed my disgust — originally stated at the creation — that such a statue ever existed. If anybody deserves a statue on a university campus, that person would be an outstanding professor or an outstanding student.
A denizen of any campus where worshipping big-time football feels de rigueur can feel threatened when explaining how the sport poisons academia. Sometimes I feel akin to an agnostic who points out the ridiculous nature of the Bible story while attending a church service as a guest.
Books Discussed in This Essay
Paterno, a biography by Joe Posnanski, Simon & Schuster, published August 2012
What has been revealed about Penn State in the past year supplies ammunition to previously marginalized critics of big-time football like myself. Yet it is difficult to feel joy given the circumstances.
A queasy feeling arises while citing the Penn State mess to score points in the debate about the undesirable role of big-time football in academe; after all, numerous adolescents became victims of sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach who had been lionized for decades. Nobody should enjoy saying anything that feels like exploiting those victims.
For me personally, the queasiness factor multiplies by near-infinity because the president of Penn State who lost his job during the mess is my friend of 50 years' duration.
But eschewing the rare opportunity to speak truth to power on football-besotted college campuses would be wrong. So I will speak up, relying on my dual status as professional book reviewer and University of Missouri emeritus professor to enter through the side door. Two just-published books about the Penn State mess provide a convenient platform for the review/essay you are reading now.
If you believe the culture of big-time college football is healthy for so-called student-athletes on the team; if you believe any college football coach should be paid more than a half-million dollars per year; if you believe faculty and staff and non-football players within the student body are better off because of revenue from the games and corruption of classroom standards — well, you might want to stop reading now. I hope, however, that you will continue.
What a shame that Penn State ended up serving as the cornerstone of the movement for de-emphasis of big-time football. The evidence is plentiful in both books that Paterno sincerely cared about football players studying and graduating. He called his plan "the Grand Experiment." As reported by Bill Moushey and Bob Dvorchak, Paterno would ask the high school students he recruited for the football team, "What if we have the best of both worlds? What if Penn State kids were smart enough to graduate from Harvard and athletic enough to beat Alabama" for a national championship?
The co-authors came to believe through their reporting that the Grand Experiment succeeded. So does the author of the Paterno biography, who has accumulated dozens of compelling examples.
When Penn State won a national championship with Paterno as coach, that same year its quarterback earned a Phi Beta Kappa designation with a grade-point average of 3.83 on a 4.0 scale. "The graduation rate for players that year was 90 percent, higher than the overall student population at Penn State," according to Moushey and Dvorchak, both former reporters at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Dvorchak specialized in sports coverage; Moushey specialized in digging out corruption and injustice.)
Game Over serves as a primer on the criminality of Sandusky and the broken criminal justice system that allowed him to remain free as a serial child molester year after year. The book appeared in stores during April, and received a surprisingly small amount of attention given the timely and sensational topic. The book has since been overtaken somewhat by events, especially the release of the Freeh report, named after chief investigator Louis Freeh, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director hired by Penn State to examine the university’s responsibility regarding Sandusky’s serial molestations of boys. The Moushey-Dvorchak book is easier to digest than the Freeh report, however, and is pretty much devoid of the sweeping, harsh judgments about Penn State administrators disseminated by Freeh.
The Paterno biography is receiving lots of attention. The commentary began before the book’s official publication date of August 21. That is no surprise. Author Joe Posnanski, a veteran sports journalist, received a gigantic advance (reportedly $750,000); moved to State College to immerse himself in his subject’s life before Sandusky’s crimes became publicly known; received extraordinary cooperation from Paterno; capitalized on his already-substantial readership as a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and author of previous books; plus benefited from being edited by Jonathan Karp, one of the very best in the trade book realm. Rarely (if ever) has a biographer been forced to re-evaluate a life so dramatically when so close to the finish line. Then losing access to Paterno after the cancer in his body spread so quickly, killing him last January, created even more difficulty for Posnanski’s re-evaluation.
Karp, in a letter to potential reviewers of the book, calls the biography "an indelible portrait of a remarkable and complicated life, and it provokes serious questions about how we measure the meaning of a life." So true. In fact, "learning how to measure the meaning of a life" sounds like a wise mission statement for a university.
I knew little about Paterno before reading the biography, other than his reputation as a winning coach who sincerely cared about his players. Based on Posnanksi’s research, I judge Paterno positively as an on-field coach, as a husband, as a father, as a mentor to countless young athletes. Should Paterno have known about Sandusky’s penchant for molesting boys? Perhaps, considering how many decades they worked together. Did Paterno know, and participate in a cover-up? Based on Posnanski’s reporting, probably not. Paterno was so focused simultaneously on his players’ welfare and on winning games that it is plausible he suspected nothing about Sandusky’s criminal behavior.
Toward the end of the book, Posnanski describes the thinking of Jay Paterno, the son of the head coach who became an assistant coach, working alongside Sandusky. The description by Posnanski of what Jay Paterno concluded seems to reflect much of what Posnanski arrived at, and what I have also adopted as my starting point: "If Sandusky was guilty, everybody was fooled.... How could [anybody] believe [Joe Paterno] knew about evils that nobody else seemed to know about?"
Another distinguished career being re-evaluated is Graham Spanier’s. Before his departure under pressure from the Penn State presidency last November, he had served 16 years as one of the most visible, controversial and — dare I remind people — respected university chieftains in the United States. Countless individuals who had admired Spanier’s job performance now revile him as somebody who somehow enabled a child molester on campus — even though Spanier knew nothing about Sandusky’s criminal behavior while Sandusky was employed at Penn State.
Spanier and I met as freshmen in high school. Our friendship grew, even as we competed for the affection of the same young woman as teenagers and shared a position on the high school newspaper. Spanier married in 1971, soon after college graduation. I served as a groomsman.
Proceeding relentlessly and brilliantly through the hoops, Spanier earned a doctorate, achieving expertise in the field of sociology/ family relations, with deep knowledge about troubled children and their parents. I knew something not many people in Spanier’s life knew — he had been physically abused as a child by his father. I knew Spanier’s father, and stayed away from him.
Unlike me, Spanier values the role of big-time football. He enjoys his role as fan, somehow (like millions of others) finding fulfillment in a sport I consider barbaric. (I should make clear that I believe all other intercollegiate sports except big-time basketball contribute positively to campus life. Athletes I have encountered from university baseball, tennis, swimming and wrestling teams labor mightily as students and also try to avoid situations that result in criminal records. I still play competitive baseball and tennis at age 64.)
Despite Spanier’s enjoyment of football, he would have liked to de-emphasize its overweening importance in the minds of students, faculty, staff and alumni. But by 1995, when Spanier became president, it was way too late for that. He realized he needed to be satisfied with a coach who treated academic performance seriously, who donated millions of dollars to the university library, and who did not rank the scholarly mission of Penn State below the football team’s won-lost record.
Spanier had to deal with the football/academia nexus to some extent while provost at Oregon State University. When he moved to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln as chancellor, Spanier entered another world, though. The Nebraska campus might rival the Penn State campus in its fervor for football. Spanier did not flinch when he felt he had to ease out a legendary athletic director. For the remainder of his tenure at Nebraska, Spanier and his family had to live with death threats. Understanding that big-time football should be better-integrated with academia, Spanier played increasingly influential roles within the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Offered the presidency at Penn State, Spanier was acutely aware of the influence Paterno wielded. Spanier knew he would sometimes have to delegate, sometimes look the other way when trouble arose. After all, Spanier was president not only of the main campus in State College, but 23 other campuses spread across the sprawling state. Spanier was responsible for close to 50,000 employees, around 90,000 students, and a budget that reached into the billions. He could not always obsess about Paterno. And he certainly could not know everything about Sandusky. In fact, by the time Spanier knew anything suspicious about Sandusky’s behavior around boys, the assistant coach was a former Penn State employee.
Posnanski, based on secondhand information about Spanier, characterizes him in the Paterno biography as "a dynamic and curious personality. He craved attention. He performed magic tricks at parties. He played washboard regularly in a State College band called the Deacons of Dixieland. His band biography read 'In his spare time he serves as president of Penn State University.' He dressed in a gorilla costume when he became chancellor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and when he was Penn State’s president he sometimes dressed as the university's mascot. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona, and he had his pilot's license, flying whenever the opportunity arose. He would wander around campus before classes began to help students move into their dorm rooms… Spanier was a political animal who cared deeply about everyone’s opinion… Spanier enjoyed being unconventional, being viewed as quirky and offbeat and even a little goofy."
The activities Posnanski describes are all part of Spanier, yes. But "craved attention" and "cared deeply about everyone’s opinion"? Not the Spanier I’ve known for 50 years. Much of each 24-hour cycle, he is a workaholic, serious about serving a university with near-perfection. The rest of each cycle, he is a man of many interests, some of them unusual, who exhibits an extreme joie de vivre.
I understand from a public relations standpoint why Spanier is no longer Penn State president. But I resent that higher education has lost an important voice when it comes to so many issues where Spanier earned a leadership role — not only intercollegiate athletics, but also music piracy by students, and national security’s intersection with campus research.
There is a tiny amount of actual evidence that Spanier could have known about a couple of Sandusky’s predations before last year. The Freeh report includes two e-mails regarding Sandusky’s alleged misbehavior with a boy during 1998. Spanier was not the primary recipient of those messages; instead he is copied on the cc: line along with other recipients. Spanier tells me he never saw, or at least does not recall seeing, those two e-mails. I believe him. Although I’m an investigative reporter with 45 years professional experience, perhaps I’m naïve about my friend. But I doubt that.
It is unimaginable to me that Spanier would tell me lies about Sandusky, Paterno or anybody/anything else. Three thoughts to bolster my belief in Spanier’s version regarding those 1998 emails: first, the wording does not state Sandusky engaged in criminal behavior. Second, even if criminal behavior could have been intuited from the vague language, Spanier would have been correct to leave the investigation to campus police, city police, child welfare investigators, and the local prosecutor. Third, Spanier is obsessive about answering e-mails and snail mail and returning telephone messages. If those 1998 cc: emails had been cause for alarm, Spanier quite likely would have fired off an answer fast.
Whatever happens to Spanier as the mess at Penn State continues to unravel, I want to end this essay optimistically. For decades, the quest to reduce the negative influences of big-time football (and basketball) on campus life has seemed futile. Yet both books demonstrate that the Grand Experiment initiated by Paterno at Penn State worked: It is possible to field a winning team composed of athletes who enroll in regular courses, study diligently, earn good grades, graduate, and find a career when playing football is no longer an option. Maybe other universities will install their versions of the Grand Experiment as key figures in administration read the evidence presented in the two books.
Here is a parable: Thirty years ago, I began reporting and writing about a terrible mess within the American criminal justice system. As I and other journalists began to document wrongful convictions, almost nobody believed the evidence. Then DNA testing arrived, and public opinion changed. Eventually, the criminal justice system in state after state, county after county, adopted significant reforms. Maybe Penn State will become the symbol of big-time football reform.
Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books, including three biographies and one about the biographical craft.
As the lurid details of the events that have catapulted Pennsylvania State University into the headlines have emerged, the rush to impose consequences has seemingly overwhelmed good sense and thoughtful, deliberative reaction. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s imposition of penalties -- taking away victories earned on the football field, banning post season bowl participation, loss of athletic scholarships, and a fine of $60 million -- seem, with one exception, to miss what ought to be the targets of everyone’s understandable wrath.
In addition, there are serious questions about how and why the NCAA has chosen to assert jurisdiction over these matters, and what precedent this establishes for future events involving NCAA member schools.
First, the wrongdoers. From all the evidence assembled and made public, Jerry Sandusky has been convicted by a jury and will undoubtedly spend the balance of his days in prison. Former President Graham Spanier and the two administrators implicated in the cover-up of the Sandusky crimes have been fired. Two, and possibly all three, face criminal prosecution, as well. Coach Paterno has died. With the exception of the taking away of victories from the team, which officially denies Paterno and his family the distinction of being the football coach with the most victories of any in history, none of the other penalties imposed affect any of the individuals involved in the events.
Second, the victims. While the actual victims of the horrendous crimes have the satisfaction of Sandusky’s conviction, and will be entitled to civil remedies against the individual wrongdoers, and very likely the university, the NCAA punishment does nothing to compensate the children or their families. The money penalties are going to establish a new charitable enterprise to focus attention on child abuse, a worthy cause, but will do nothing to help the victims associated with this tragedy.
Third, the new victims. The NCAA sanctions affecting bowl games and athletic scholarships will now affect athletes who have done absolutely nothing wrong. And the financial sanctions risk impacting the entire student body and faculty at Penn State. While the NCAA has gotten most of the headlines, the Big Ten Conference imposed its own sanctions on Penn State, including its annual share of television revenue for four years. In combination with the NCAA fine, the university will lose $73 million. Add to that sum the expected funds necessary to resolve civil cases that the crime victims will be entitled to receive, plus litigation costs, and the sums involved could, according to one of the trustees, approach $500 million. There is the further concern that liability insurance carriers could decline coverage of legal claims if it is shown the wrongdoing by Penn State officials was intentional. Typically, coverage is limited to acts of negligence.
With the athletic program hobbled by the sanctions and loss of television revenue, funding the payment of these matters will likely require that either students, through tuition hikes and/or fees, or taxpayers be required to pay up. And as this all plays out, is there any doubt students who might ordinarily choose to attend Penn State will go elsewhere, and a superb faculty, assembled over decades, will slowly but surely drift away to other institutions where resources will not be drained paying for the sins of five people long gone from the institution?
Obviously, not all of these potential consequences are due to the NCAA and Big Ten conference. But the piling on, without a clearly defined purpose and questionable subject matter jurisdiction, is unnecessary, at best, and sadly misdirected.
There is no evidence that the events in any way involved intercollegiate competition, improperly recruiting athletes, providing improper benefits to athletes or any other rule in the NCAA’s micromanaging of competition-related conduct. The use of the notion of “institutional control” as the basis for the NCAA’s jurisdiction in this instance can now be used to assert NCAA sanctions in any event that involves a university and its athletic program employees and students. This seems significantly beyond the legitimate jurisdiction of, and purpose for, the NCAA.
While public universities have been experiencing reductions of state financial support for many years, few if any could withstand the dimension of the impacts that are being imposed, without serious consequences to the academic mission of the institution.
So what has the NCAA really accomplished? With the exception of the Paterno victory reduction (which seems entirely appropriate), its sanctions miss the wrongdoers, miss the crime victims, and in a sense, create a new category of victims (students, faculty, taxpayers and the academic vitality of the university).
The precedent being set raises, in my mind, serious questions about the future. One example: what if the tragic shooting events several years ago at Virginia Tech involved either an athlete or former employee of the athletic department, and as an evaluation later determined, the school had not undertaken sufficient steps to warn other students of the danger as events unfolded. Would such circumstances call for NCAA sanctions over and above the criminal and civil justice responses? After all, the crimes would have been related to the athletic department, and the university’s “institutional control” was found to be inadequate.
The NCAA’s actions in this instance, leaving aside any arguments about due process, feel more like politicians, each trying to one up each other offering competing, kneejerk legislative proposals in response to the world’s latest tragedy, rather than the thoughtful, effective, and properly targeted sanctions expected of respected educators.
Robert L. King is president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
Here is the lesson people want to learn from the Penn State scandal: There are some smarmy folks out there who, through a combination of mindless groupthink and fear of antagonizing important people, will do unimaginable things, like not reporting child abusers to the police; perhaps there are other "Penn States" out there or possibly there even are people at our own institution who are hiding seriously dirty linen about which we know nothing. The one thing we know for sure is that we never would act the way those people did.
That’s the wrong lesson. Here’s why.
In the 1960s, the late Stanley Milgram did a series of studies while a faculty member at Yale University. Although the initial studies are old, they have been replicated many times since, across time and place. Milgram would have two study participants enter a room. One would be assigned, seemingly at random, to the role of learner and the other to the role of teacher. Unbeknownst to the teacher, who was a naïve subject, the role assignments were rigged and the learner was a confederate of the experimenter's.
The teacher and learner were informed that they would participate in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. On successive trials, the teacher would read to the learner a list of words to be learned and the learner would repeat back the words he remembered. When the learner made a mistake, the teacher would use an apparatus that would deliver an electric shock to the learner.
The apparatus was designed so that each successive shock would be heavier than the last one. Shocks on the device were arranged in increments of 10 volts, ranging from just 10 volts up to 450 volts. The switches at the high end, near 450 volts, had labels like “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “extreme shock,” “danger: severe shock,” and at the top of the scale, “XXX.” The teacher was given a sample 45-volt shock to show him that the apparatus really did deliver shocks and that they were painful.
Once the experiment started, the learner began to make mistakes. So the teacher shocked him. (In the initial experiments, participants were male, but later experiments involved female participants as well.) After a while, the teacher heard the learner groan, later scream, still later complain about his heart, yet later demand that the experiment stop, and finally fall silent. It might seem that the teacher would stop delivering shocks once the learner started to protest, but the experimenter would reply, when the teacher indicated he wanted to stop the experiment, with responses ranging in a graded sequence: "Continue please”…. "Go on" …. "The experiment requires that you continue" …."It is absolutely essential that you continue" …."You have no choice."
As you may know, the experiment was not really on the effects of punishment on learning but rather on obedience. Psychiatrists asked to estimate what percentage of subjects would administer the maximum level of shock estimated that it would be less than 1 percent. In fact, it was roughly two-thirds.
When I have taught introductory psychology, I have asked my 150 or so students how many of them would have gone to the end, and typically, only one or two jokers say they would have. The rest of the students strenuously deny they would have administered the maximum shock. Yet, roughly two-thirds of them would have gone to the end of the shocks, even though they cannot imagine they would have. They do not yet realize the harm of which they are capable. We all are susceptible to believing that only other people act in ways that are heartless, cruel, or indifferent, and then possibly rationalizing them as humane.
Fortunately for the learner in the Milgram experiments, the shock machine was a phony and, as mentioned earlier, the learner was a confederate and a trained actor. The experiments as originally conducted never would pass muster with today’s ethical requirements because subjects could not be adequately debriefed. No matter what the debriefing said, roughly two-thirds of the subjects in a typical running of the study left the experiment knowing that they might have killed the subject had the shocks been real.
The usual interpretation of the Milgram experiment has been that people are remarkably obedient and that it is because of this typically unrealized potential for obedience that horrors like the Nazi or Rwandan genocide or the brutal reprisals in Syria could take place. In the July 2012 issue of Psychological Science, Stephen D. Reicher of the University of St. Andrews and his colleagues have suggested that “agents of tyranny actively identify with their leaders and are motivated to display creative followership in working toward goals that they believe those leaders wish to see fulfilled.” In other words, people don’t just passively obey; they behave proactively to curry favor with their admired leaders or role models. Sound familiar?
In a related demonstration, Philip Zimbardo, formerly a professor of psychology at Stanford, randomly assigned college students to one of two groups: prison guard or prisoner. He placed them in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department and then observed how they acted. To his dismay and the dismay of anyone who has since learned of the study, the guards rather quickly started acting like sadistic prison guards and the prisoners started acting in ways betraying learned helplessness — they were essentially browbeaten into submission.
In yet another study, published in 1973 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, John Darley and C. Daniel Batson found that even most divinity students on their way to give a lecture on the Good Samaritan failed to help a person in obvious distress if their other priorities, such as arriving on time for the lecture, were more important to them at the moment. The study showed that intense ethical training provides relatively little protection against bad behavior in an ethically challenging situation. Since that study was published, episodes of horrendous abuse of children at the hands of clergy, while other clergy in the know stood idly by, have reinforced this lesson in gory detail. Really, no training offers ironclad protection.
If there is one thing that social psychologists have learned over the past decades, it is the enormous but often hidden power of situational pressures. The lesson of the Penn State tragedy is not that there are heartless bureaucrats out there who are willing to sacrifice the well-being of children for the sake of the reputation of the university and its athletic teams. Almost certainly there are. However, the real lesson of the Penn State tragedy is that, given certain situational constraints, virtually all of us could behave the way those administrators allegedly did. These circumstances include severe pressures to conform accompanied by fear of punishment for noncompliance, desire to please or curry favor with one or more persons in a position of power, rationalization of one’s actions, and what I have called "ethical drift" — one’s declining ethical standards in the face of group norms whereby one is not even aware that one’s standards are dropping.
To be clear: The power of situational variables in no way excuses bad behavior. Rather, such variables should help us understand, in part, why such behavior occurs in certain situations, why we are all potentially susceptible to it, and most importantly, what we can do about it.
How do you avoid falling to the trap of ethical drift? First, you need to realize that almost anyone, including yourself, is capable of behaving abysmally under certain circumstances. Second, you need rather regularly to ask yourself whether situational pressures are leading you to behave in ways that once would have seemed totally inappropriate and wrong to you. Third, you need to ask yourself whether you are rationalizing behavior that once would have seemed unacceptable to you. And fourth, you need to be willing to take a stand and do the right thing, realizing that although there may be serious short-term costs to acting ethically, you are willing to accept those costs so you can live with yourself and others over the long term.
One last thing: You may still be thinking that although other people may fall prey to ethical drift — or even a sudden drop off the ethical cliff — you would never succumb to situational pressure to conform. For example, you may just feel you know you would not have gone to the top of the shock apparatus or have let a child abuser continue to abuse children, regardless of the situational pressures placed on you. You may be right, but research has not found any personality characteristics that reliably predict who will succumb to such extreme pressures and who won’t.
Put another way, we all have to be in the situation to know what we would do. So you may wish to reserve judgment for now. When, sooner or later, you are in an ethically challenging situation, as the Penn State administrators were, you then will have an opportunity to learn something about yourself. If you resist succumbing to the temptation just to go along, you then will be able to feel pride in yourself, as would we all. As for me, I find what happened at Penn State absolutely abhorrent and cannot believe that I would have acted in the way those administrators appear to have, but I know I cannot be absolutely sure of what I would do unless I found myself actually in such a situation under comparable pressures.
When crowds of fans shouted, “We are Penn State!” they did not realize just how right they were. Potentially, at least, we all are Penn State, both in its best aspects and its worst.
Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, Regents Professor of Psychology and Education and George Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Leadership Ethics at Oklahoma State University. He also is president of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and past president of the American Psychological Association. The opinions expressed in this article, however, are entirely his own.
Experts often cite escalating revenues and spending in athletics as a driver in the culture that, according to the Freeh report, helped enable the Penn State scandal. But don't look for the cash flow to slow any time soon.
In the spring of 2009 the Italian football (soccer) club Juventus – as wealthy and powerful a club as exists in Europe – was forced to play a game with no fans in attendance because the crowd at a game had been racially abusive to another team’s player.
During the 2011-2012 Dutch soccer season, AFC Ajax – one of the two dominant clubs in that nation’s athletic scene – played a match in an empty stadium after a fan ran onto the field and attacked a visiting team player.
This spring, the Italian top-level football club Genoa was required to play its final two home games “behind closed doors” because of crowd violence at a previous match.
Latest Penn State Developments
With NCAA poised to announce
penalties against the university
Monday, campus officials take
down Joe Paterno's statue outside
the football stadium.
All around the world, the penalty for toxic sport culture is the same: teams, rich teams, poor teams, powerful teams, unknown teams, are required to play games in silent, empty stadia, often without television as a local option, denied income and in-house support, while the fans hopefully learn – the hard way – that there are things more important than athletics.
Now, we, in American higher education, have a good reason to learn from the planet we share but hardly ever actually interact with as equals. When the culture of sport is the issue, attack the culture of the sport by cutting off its oxygen supply: remove the fans from the scene of their crimes.
There is no doubt that the “culture of reverence” (the words of the Freeh report) for Penn State football created the conditions in which the cover up of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes could not only occur, but go on for 14 years. There is no doubt that the culture of football worship – and Joe Paterno worship – in State College, Pa., allowed decades of crimes to occur in silence: the sexual harassment and discrimination by the university’s former women’s basketball coach Rene Portland for one, the many reported but unprosecuted crimes by Nittany Lions football players from 2002 to 2008 exposed by ESPN for another.
And there is little doubt that it is a culture unchallenged at Pennsylvania State University, which, since the scandal broke eight months ago, has put no sanctions on its football program, has crowed about continued donations, has sent the team off to a bowl game, and has, frighteningly, suggested as its one action, that the showers and locker room at the Lasch Football Building be renovated lest Penn State football players "feel uncomfortable."
Allie Grasgreen’s article last week on Inside Higher Ed, Must Penn State Cleanse?, dealt with the need for a “grand gesture,” such as shutting down the football program for one or more seasons. “I can’t see any other action that shows that great intersection of wanting to do better -- introspection, remorse, pain, leadership, humanity, empathy -- in its real sense,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport and Society program. “If they’re hoping for football to return to prominence, wouldn’t they want it also under a cleansed brand?”
“The board has an imperative to take strong, demonstrable action to both rein in and possibly even punish the football program itself, as it would other renegade programs within the institution,” the article quote former University of Michigan president James J. Duderstadt as writing. But Grasgreen also pointed out the many “too big to fail” excuses for why Penn State football must march on, almost all of which are related to the financial consequences of broken contracts or the perception that innocent athletes are being punished.
So, if march on the Nittany Lions must, let them march on in silence behind the padlocked gates of Beaver Stadium for the next four years, or long enough to break, conclusively, that culture of reverence. Let there be no “Paternovilles” (by any name), let there be no more embarrassing moments of faux piety as we witnessed during the Nebraska-Penn State game last autumn. Allow the players to play, insist that Penn State pay its contractual commitments, allow the Big Ten to have its right number of games televised everywhere but the State of Pennsylvania, but send an unmistakable message that Penn State exists for some reason other than to provide Saturday afternoon entertainment eight days a year.
Throughout my watch of Penn State since the Sandusky arrest I have been privileged to be in communication with a very important member of the Penn State community, Matt Bodenschatz, a “non-traditional” student who immediately began challenging his university’s response to the scandal in November of last year. “I have something unpopular to say,” Bodenschatz wrote bravely on November 13, “I see everywhere -- in your editorials on your social media pages, in your subversively-written chalk messages printed all over campus -- your desperate insistence that ‘We are still Penn State.’ And each of these that I come upon creates in me a feeling of isolating sadness and emptiness. It reinforces in me what I have long felt – that the realities of victims and the realities of observers are worlds apart.”
Then he adds, “Because my community -- the survivor community, the victim community -- doesn’t get to boast of being unchanged.”
Since that day I have watched Bodenschatz work – through his group Voices4Victims– to educate his peers, his classmates, his community, his university, even his alumni association on the horrific symbolism of Penn State “moving on,” “getting back to normal.”
For if Penn State is allowed to casually return to “normal” this September, its Saturdays filled with crowds tailgating and cheering, the band playing, the party atmosphere, neither Bodenschatz nor any other victim within the Penn State community gets a true chance to heal. “It’s easy to get over this,” we’ll be saying. “See, a few months and it’s all in the past.” To allow that to happen would be a violation of all that it truly means to be an educational institution.
In a comment on Grasgreen’s article, Sanford Thatcher, the distinguished former director of the Penn State University Press, insists that, “There was no attempt by anyone in athletics to pull its programs away from "core values" of the university and embrace a "commercial culture" instead.” And he asks, incredibly, “Exactly what "university mission" was abandoned in favor of football?”
It is for Mr. Thatcher, and the students of Penn State, that this teachable moment must be embraced. We must teach all that the mission of any university, the mission of any educational institution, the mission of any educated person, includes the obligation to serve and protect society – especially society’s most vulnerable. That our mission includes the obligation to behave honestly and ethically, and that it includes an obligation to demonstrate, and to teach, humane and appropriate behavior.
The teaching of this cannot take place in the course of business as usual in State College. That gap Bodenschatz speaks of, between the realities of the victims and the realities of the observers, is clearly too vast to be bridged five days a week if on day six we argue, as loudly as possible, the opposite.
We can’t shut down Penn State football? Fine. Let them play. But let them play in silence while the business of education goes on.
Ira Socol is a research and teaching assistant at Michigan State University.