Joe Paterno has been relieved of his responsibilities as head football coach at Penn State. The Board of Trustees of Penn State, recognizing that the school itself was more important than Mr. Paterno, made the right decision in terminating his contract, doing so even in the wake of the coach’s declaration that he would retire at the end of the season.
This scandal is moving forward at a frenetic pace. Paterno has now allegedly sought legal counsel from a prominent Washington DC lawyer who previously defended President George W. Bush. Alleged sexual predator Jerry Sandusky has, through his counsel, denied all of the allegations against him and is said to be “destroyed” by the fact that Paterno was fired. The school has stated that Mike McQueary will not be on the sidelines for tomorrow’s football game, for his own protection due to threats that have been made against him. The firestorm that has erupted at the school, however, through the actions and inactions of those men and others, left the Trustees with no option but to fire the 84-year old JoePa, and attempt to begin the process of healing the incredible amount of damage that had been done to the institution almost overnight.
But regaining its stature amongst this country’s universities, at least in the public eye, will not be so easy. And it was made harder by the fact that droves of students have publically condemned the firing of Paterno, even in the face of the allegations being leveled against him and members of his coaching staff as well as the school’s administration. These students have turned a blind eye to the facts before them, of the grand jury testimony from Paterno himself, and have essentially done exactly what Paterno did nine years ago to merit the involuntary and embarrassing end to his otherwise storied coaching career. They have refused to see the obvious. They have refused to properly consider, or come to grips with, the fact that such actions could be taken at their idyllic campus.
What would cause students to completely disregard the fact that Paterno had failed to properly question the events that took place between Jerry Sandusky and a ten-year old boy in 2002? Just like Paterno allegedly failed to ask McQueary what he meant by “inappropriate” when McQueary came to his house nine years ago, and tried to protect his reputation and the school’s football program by going no further than the athletic director with the information , the students are rallying around JoePa’s reputation, seeking to somehow try to salvage it by decrying his ouster. But in each case, the two have had the opposite effect. In Paterno’s case, it led to his ultimate firing and, sadly, the complete destruction of his half-century body of coaching success. As for the students, it makes them look ridiculous – rioting and overturning a news van – and those identified will now face criminal charges of their own.
Why? Simply put, the “cult of personality”. Joe Paterno was the head football coach at the Pennsylvania State University since 1966, long before any of those students, and likely some of their parents, were born. During these kids’ lifetimes, Joe Paterno has been as synonymous with Penn State as its Nittany Lion mascot. The state of Pennsylvania, more so than most any other, is football-crazy. It starts from the high school level, up to Penn State, and then to the NFL’s Eagles and Steelers. The love for high school football was memorialized in the movie “All the Right Moves,” starring Tom Cruise, and local newscasts, such as in my old college home of Lancaster, PA, often start with the high school sports. Others on this site have reminisced about their time growing up in Pennsylvania, whether in the shadow of Happy Valley or otherwise, and have recounted the esteem with which Paterno is held throughout the state. Plus, Coach Paterno, it was believed, ran a clean program. His players weren’t thugs, like at the University of Miami. The school was not engulfed in paying players, like so many other schools. Instead, it was an “old-school”, honest program, run by Paterno, himself a reminder of an earlier era of all-powerful, “paternal” coaches.
There is a statue of Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium. It is larger-than-life. Well, so was Joe Paterno up until this week. He was not a man. He was a myth, a legend, the great “JoePa.” Right around the time that the alleged incidents took place with Sandusky, there were calls (unrelated to the incidents) to fire Paterno, that his time had passed. Perhaps that was even more reason for the coaches and athletic director to hide the allegations, so that the calls would not grow louder. But then, the team started to win again. Big 10 titles in 2005 and 2008 solidified Paterno’s stature as coach extraodinaire, and even injuries which forced him to coach from a box high above Beaver Stadium were not enough to cause anyone to ask whether the octogenarian was fit to continue coaching, especially as he approached and then passed Eddie Robinson’s record for most wins ever by a Division I football coach.
The players, and the students, held him in such high esteem that he was, in some minds, not even capable of doing what was alleged, even when faced with the evidence. Some will continue to adhere to their beliefs even as the evidence continues to be revealed, evidence which will no doubt be more and more damning to the coach and his up-to-now insular program.
Wikipedia states that the “cult of personality”, most often associated with dictatorships, arises “when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods, to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioned flattery and praise.” Here, the machine that created the myth of Joe Paterno was not simply Paterno himself, but those around him that made him larger than life. And it was those people who sought to protect the treasure that was Paterno, and to hide the allegations surrounding Sandusky, and Paterno’s possible association with concealing his actions, as best as possible. Now, it is the kids, those who have grown up revering Paterno, that are having difficulty coming to grips with the reality that Paterno, the legend, is simply Paterno, the man.
It is the same “cult”-like atmosphere and beliefs that we have seen time and again. While not comparing Paterno to any of the following people (so no inferences should be drawn by this list), it is the same reverence that caused people to kill for Charles Manson. It is the same reverence that caused people to commit mass suicide for Reverend James Jones. It is the same reverence that caused people to fight the ATF, to their deaths, for David Koresh. And yes, as set forth by many on these pages and others over the past few days, it is the same reverence that makes people hold their clergy in such high esteem that they appear infallible.
Several have compared this situation to the Catholic Church, with its insular nature and overwhelming passion for protecting the institution of the church, especially over the last decade with respect to sex scandals eerily similar to the one currently gripping Penn State. It is not limited to the Catholic Church, however. I serve on the Board of Directors of my Temple. At times, there are issues raised as to our Rabbi’s failure to do something that he was to do, or of some other problem with his performance. Yet even when such actions or inactions are clear and uncontested, and no matter how slight or severe they may be, there are still those on our Board, and other congregants, who will make some form of excuse on his behalf, sometimes publically and without any basis for their comments or conclusions. It is blind faith, in its ultimate form. And it is the same blind faith that is causing those Penn State students to riot.
A friend of mine once explained to me that these “leaders” rely on people who are broken, in some way, for their support. That seems true, as Manson was surrounded by drifters seeking refuge from their lives and a place where they were accepted and loved. The same is true for cult leaders like Jones, Koresh, or Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, who also famously led a group to mass suicide while waiting for the arrival of the Hall-Bopp comet. While “broken” may be too strong a word, perhaps the words “impressionable” or “lost” are better. And students, especially impressionable teenagers away from home for the first time, can easily get drawn into a frenzy, protesting for a cause that they neither understand or have even tried to fully digest.
The religious aspect has been addressed by BishopAccountability.org, a group which advocates for the rights of people abused by Catholic priests. The group has released a statement which reads, in part, as follows:
“To observers of the Catholic crisis, this phenomenon is sadly familiar. The students are similar to the parishioners who rally around abusive priests and complicit bishops. This kind of deference to powerful authority figures helps create a culture in which victims are silenced and officials feel entitled to hide crimes rather than calling the police.”
When the story first broke, there were eight victims listed. Published reports claim that at least nine others have come forth since that time. No doubt, others will follow. Some will be fraudulent and merely looking to cash in on the civil suits that will likely ensue. But the true victims cannot be frightened to come forward due to others continuing to deify Paterno. And even with his acceptance of his firing, it is still questionable as to whether Paterno fully recognizes that what he did was wrong. He did not resign. He said only that he would retire at the end of this season. He should have realized that he could not coach again this season. The Board of Trustees, thankfully, did. There has been no indication from Paterno that he did anything wrong. His statement about how he should have done more, in hindsight, can be read in two ways: either he would have done more to protect the victims, or he would have done more to protect his own reputation. As he is now not talking about the scandal, instead reaching out to counsel in anticipation of possible legal repercussions against him, then we may never know which he meant.
So the students rioted. And there will possibly be more. University officials are worried that there will be some form of incident at tomorrow’s game against Nebraska. There will be over 100,000 people jammed into Beaver Stadium for the game against the Cornhuskers tomorrow, and, moreover, it will be “Senior Day.” It will be the last day for the graduating seniors to play a game on Beaver Stadium’s field. It will be their last chance, after practically residing in that stadium for the past four years, to run through the tunnel and into the sunlight, soaking up the roar of 100,000 adoring blue-and-white clad fans. Emotions always run high at such events. It will no doubt be higher tomorrow, when mixed with the emotional roller coaster that the students, administration, and alumni have been enduring for the past week. This will be especially true for those who still want to cling to the hero version of Joe Paterno, not the human, and frail, Joe Paterno. So while there is hope that peace has been restored to the once-idyllic campus of the Pennsylvania State University, only time will truly tell.
Reality dictates, however, that if Joe Paterno has not come to grips with the fact that he has done anything wrong, then how can we expect a group of disillusioned college students to do so? That may be asking too much of the students.