Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Grey Days of Penn State; The Death of Honor

If you asked me today to name the two men my grandfather revered more than any other, I may have been wrong, but I wouldn't have hesitated in answering. John Wooden and Joe Paterno.

I grew up rooting quietly for Penn State football as a sort of nod to the blood connection I have to central, small town Pennsylvania. My grandpa grew up in Wilkes Barre. My grandma in Mansfield. I remember so many Saturdays of my childhood sitting near my grandpa (Little Kings in hand), and hearing him talk in soft, awed tones about Joe Pa...

So it's in that context I've been following the horrible story at Penn State for the last few days with growing disgust and sadness.

There are certainly parts that are undeniable; beyond argument...

The abuse Jerry Sandusky subjected those boys to is terrible. It could be argued that it's the worst thing imaginable, and it is more than clear not enough was done to stop him from abusing others. Penn State Officials didn't do enough, and instead were worried about protecting the school's image.

Those three facts, to me, are black and white.
To me, though, maybe there's some grey as well.

Most people I've heard from would disagree. They'd say that the Mike McQueary should have physically stopped Sandusky mid-act when he witnessed it. They'd say that Joe Paterno, after being told of the incident by McQueary, didn't do enough by merely reporting the incident to Penn State officials, and should have followed up to make sure something was done.They'd say that Paterno failed as a human being and should never coach another game at Penn State. They'd say that he's forever tarnished his legacy.

I am not, in any way, saying that the way things were handled were even remotely adequate. With all the outrage, I'm sure that's a difficult thing to do, but I wonder what was going through McQueary's and Paterno's minds at the time.. I don't blame people for not trying to see their perspective. So many of the facts are irrefutably horrible, that it's easy to say "they are all I need to know".

I hope my readers will give me some leeway to try to play devil's advocate for a few. I have to believe that most people are fundamentally good. I refuse to give Sandusky that benefit of the doubt, but I'm going to look at McQueary and Paterno for a minute...

Mike McQueary is a guy who grew up in State College, PA. He knew Jerry Sandusky his whole life. He knew him as the father of his classmates, as a walking legend on the football team he dreamed of playing for, as a mentor while he finally played at that college, as the founder of a charity benefiting poor children.

Try to imagine knowing someone your whole life, and not just knowing them, but deifying them. This is, as Michael Weinreb so interestingly said, a man they worshipped in stand-up form. Is it at all plausible, even if not right or okay, that factoring all these things in, maybe it wasn't as easy to step in as we'd all hope it would be? That a person might freeze, even for a minute, when faced with seeing a thing they'd never expected to see.  I've heard dozens of people on the radio saying that they unequivocally would have stepped in right at that moment, and ushered the child to safety. That's great for them, and hopefully true, but I have a hard time listening to what other people would do in someone else's experience. I'm sure that, in hindsight, that McQueary wishes he'd done more, too. I just think it's too easy to say that McQueary should have had the presence of mind in that moment to set aside every bit of history and act as everybody else deems that he should have.

To be clear... I think he should have too, but I don't know that I make him a villain for hesitating. Or even retreating. He reported the incident, which I agree is the dirty bare minimum, but I do think it's better to do the right thing eventually as opposed to not at all.

I, personally, have seen kids getting spanked or slapped in grocery stores and parking lots, felt like it was excessive, and I've done nothing. I've been upset with myself afterward for doing nothing. I've regretted doing nothing. But I still did nothing.

I was talking to my buddy Alan this evening and his lovely girlfriend, Lesli, and she brought up this time when she saw her nephew walk into a fire and everyone froze for a minute. She said she even looked away, just as a gut reaction. She then used a phrase I've used before on this blog, and I think it really applies here.

'Cognitive Dissonance' is a discomfort felt when you hold two conflicting ideas simultaneously. The fight in your brain between what you expect to see, and what you really do see. Could McQueary's hesitation in that moment be attributed to cognitive dissonance? Could he have, in that moment, frozen while he simultaneously saw a devastatingly horrible act perpetrated by a man who he looked up to as a father figure and a legend?

Okay... That's enough about Mike McQueary. I've provided more of an argument on his behalf than he rightly deserves. In the end, the argument against him is too strong. A child can't defend themselves. McQueary was a big, healthy 28 year old man who could have stopped it. End of story.

Okay... deep breath.

I think the great Joe Paterno has some explaining to do.  Do I think he deserved to be fired? Probably, in that the public as a whole, at least outside of State College, would never have let it pass...

When I started this blog earlier today, 12 hours ago or so, I was going to try to ease off the throttle against Paterno. I was truly going to say that those who say Paterno failed as a human being and should never coach another game at Penn State, or that he's forever tarnished his legacy were not looking at the grey of the situation.

I was wrong. I was struggling with my own cognitive dissonance.

I have written 10 different excuses for Paterno tonight. I've deleted them all. I can't talk myself into any of them. There is no idolatry to fall back on. There is no reasonable excuse.  I want, so badly, to preserve the honor of this man I've respected for literally my whole life. This man my grandfathered spoke of in reverent tones. I simply can't do it.

Joe Paterno sat in his seat of ultimate power, and he did the bare minimum under the law. For the life of me, I don't know why. Maybe it's because Jerry Sandusky was his lifelong friend. Maybe it's because he didn't want to believe such horrible things about someone he knew for so long. Maybe he truly did feel embarrassed that he was "fooled".

Fuck that.

Joe Paterno was God. There are many people who would call him the most famous and respected man in Pennsylvania. The men he reported the crimes to were his superiors in name only, and everybody knows that. Joe Paterno's subsequent inaction after his token report is, in my mind the second greatest sin of the whole sordid affair. Maybe it's my strong desire to give Joe Paterno a small window of absolution, but t I keep trying to come up with a reason he wasn't responsible, but I've failed. Joe Paterno failed those children. Joe Paterno failed every person who looked at him as a moral compass.

I started today hearing how Joe Paterno's legacy was tarnished forever, and I didn't want to believe it, but it's true. JoePa may be the greatest coach in any sport, ever, but he'll never again be the paragon of blue collar honor and virtue we all believed him to be.

I'm sad for the boys who were abused, and that the firing or legacy of a football coach is overshadowing their experience.

The death of the honor of Joe Paterno isn't the greatest tragedy of the Penn State story, but it is a tragedy.