The Cowardly Lions
Because most large, public universities are so defined by the branding of their football and basketball teams, it is very likely that when an entire generation—no, when, like, three generations—of Americans hear “Penn State,” they will be unable to think of anything other than the time multiple child molestation charges were brought against former Nittany Lion defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. To those associated with The Pennsylvania State University—its students, professors, administrators, faculty members, alumni, and local and national supporters—the agricultural school that grew into a top-50 American university, a college football mecca, and an undergraduate partying destination may continue to be all of those things. To the rest of us, it is now merely “that place” that employed, in a supremely powerful position—second in the football chain of command only to lionized head coach Joe Paterno—an alleged serial child rapist. It is also the school that appears to have, in some fashion, covered up Sandusky’s actions in the name of winning football games. How and why this all went down is weird, awful, complicated, and horrifying. Above all, it is a testament to the almighty power of the institution.
Ten years ago, I was a high school senior who wanted to attend a big party school with a lot of social and academic options. I did not desire to (and so did not) go to Penn State because of how many people from my inner city Pittsburgh high school were going there. I thought that heading to a big party school two states west, in Indiana, differentiated me from my classmates. I was going to have a unique and superior experience, and they were going to do the same things they’d always done, whatever those things were.
It took me a fair amount of time to figure out that this thinking was complete nonsense. In mid-October of my freshman year, I started hearing rumors that the University of Wisconsin “threw” a ravaging Halloween party. I visited Madison the following year to find out if this was true, and it was; the celebrations there were massive and preposterous. Wisconsin (which, in collegiate-speak, refers to the students who attend the university) had “the best Halloween,” and I returned my junior and senior years to revel in it.
At some point during college, I was hanging out with some kids in my fraternity, when a guy asserted that Ohio University’s Halloween was maybe just as good as Wisconsin’s. Since this guy was A) an upperclassman and B) the kind of intense person who makes you feel that he is always on the cusp of saying something of interest, I listened eagerly. But instead of supporting his statement, he said that Ohio’s campus in Athens was the only one that compared with the perfection of ours in Bloomington. Then he remarked that, nonetheless, neither of those two schools (Ohio or Wisconsin) had a greater party event than Little 500, Indiana University’s weeklong drinking orgy that revolves around a bike race. Also, it (he was back to talking specifically about Wisconsin) did not have as meaningful a relationship to its Badgers football team as we, the Hoosiers, had to our basketball team.
As I listened to this tangential mini-rant (which was coherent only because I was, at the time, deeply engrossed in the social mores of big-time public universities), I realized that the guy was speaking with no irony whatsoever, and so this moment has become the one that, to me, symbolizes the bizarreness of my college experience.
When you enroll at one of these large, public U.S. universities, you willingly forsake a part of your identity for the idea of the institution. While there are always highly specific details that distinguish them from one another (like, for instance, a world-renowned music department and an influx of Long Islanders and New York City suburbanites, two traits particular to Indiana), if viewed from afar, most of these schools are carbon copies of one another. There is the gargantuan student body, the pervasive binge drinking culture, the manicured campus, the insane devotion to the football and basketball teams; in a way, it seems like the only variables are the students’ accents and the weather.
If we’re all at different schools, but all at the same school, how do we know what is real about the one we happen to attend? Indiana University, the place that charged me money so that it could pay scholars to teach me how to think critically about literature, is a real place. IU, the acronym in whose name my friends and I drank a lot of beer, is a construction.
I thought about this while reading about how, in State College, PA, a candlelight vigil for the victims in the Sandusky case ended with students breaking into a “We are . . . Penn State” chant. The ritualized chanting creates a metaphoric sensation, but it is actually the most literal thing the students can say. That they really are Penn State is what allows the institution—eerily similar to Big Brother in its simultaneous omnipresence and facelessness—to thrive. We don’t worry about this when Joe Paterno’s winning football games and donating money to the classics department. It is only when something with the magnitude of the Sandusky case erupts that we have to confront our creations.
We may be a society that is quick to judge and moralize, but rarely do we do so arbitrarily. If you have managed to make your way through the 23-page grand jury report that, in graphic, unambiguous detail, states the case against Sandusky, you will quickly understand why it’s hard to restrain from jumping to conclusions. And while it would be strange if we learned that none of the report was true, even if we assume that all of the report is true, we’re still left wondering how anyone could have let this happen. But what we should be asking is, how could anything—that is, how could Penn State—have overlooked Sandusky’s actions? Would they have done so at Swarthmore?
Here’s a guide to the 10 most interesting pieces I’ve read about the tragedy-cum-scandal.
1. Sara Ganim’s breakdown of all the chances authorities had to investigate Jerry Sandusky since 1995. If you want to get the Sandusky timeline correct, read this article. Ganim’s a reporter for Harrisburg’s The Patriot News, and she does a brilliant job of objectively stating the facts while writing with vigor and humanity.
2. Jason Whitlock’s column calling for Obama to relieve the biased Pennsylvania state government in its prosecution of Sandusky. Based on the PA attorney general’s report, his argument seems a bit misguided, but nonetheless this column showcases Whitlock’s skill of cutting straight to an issue’s core—a skill that has made him one of the most consistent and reliable sources of honest commentary in American sports writing.
3. Joe Posnanski’s blog post. Part of Posnanski’s appeal is just how nice and genuine his writing makes him seem, so it’s almost disenchanting to read him ranting about how Paterno’s the fall guy, Paterno’s the scapegoat, Paterno’s responsible for his program but is still a great person, and so on and so forth. Perhaps the reason for Posnanski’s reaction is that he moved away from his family to State College to write a book that was going to be a fluffy ode to Paterno’s wisdom, and it was set to come out on Father’s Day. I can only hope that he (Posnanski) swallows his dream of writing the next Tuesdays With Morrie (as Whitlock termed it) and realizes that there’s a far more interesting story there: the myth of Paterno.
4. Gene Wojciechowski’s column examining the irony of Paterno’s interest in the Greek and Roman classics. It’s more “Paterno’s tragic flaw” stuff, but it’s a compelling (if obvious) comparison.
5. Stewart Mandel’s column about the danger of worshipping college coaches. It’s an obvious point, but Mandel makes it withfranknessand not righteousness.
6. Elizabeth Merrill’s article that explores Sandusky’s life. Who is he? No one really knows. This made me think about how the one thing that’s fascinating—but that no writer has touched (as far as I know)—is Sandusky’s wife.
7. Jon Ritchie’s interview about being recruited by Jerry Sandusky. Ritchie, a former NFL fullback, is eloquent in articulating his disbelief about a man he once praised in speeches at benefits.The most amazing part is when Ritchie explains how Sandusky always seemed embarrassed by these speeches. Ritchie thought this conveyed Sandusky’s selflessness, but now, in retrospect, he realizes that Sandusky actually was embarrassed because he knew the truth about himself.
8. Michael Weinreb’s two stories about growing up in State College and about why the riots happened. Weinreb, a journalist who holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing, seems most comfortable in a longer form than a column—his book about an elite high school chess team in Brooklyn is utterly captivating—but these columns are written with a wrenching heart and an analytical eye.
9. Jane Leavy’s harrowing account of her own experience with sexual abuse. This is an example of a piece’s title telling us everything we need to know: “Grown-ups Must Act Like Grown-ups.”
10. David Brooks and Gail Collins’s conversation. The two Times columnists try to make sense of the situation and end up making some of the smartest points, like Brooks’s statement that one of the “downsides to our zero tolerance culture” is that “people feel less moral responsibility so long as they are following the legal rules.”