Bill

He always called me “coach.” For him this was a term of honor because he was a standout athlete in both high school and college. I had coached the women’s tennis team at the local university for 15 years and Bill read about our team’s ups and downs in the local newspaper. He was a stalwart supporter of everything having to do with sports.

We used to run into one another at the post office when I went to get the mail each morning and he liked to tell me about his experience on the tennis court. He took a P.E. class at St. Cloud State University and the instructor was the men’s tennis coach. He noted Bill’s athletic ability and urged Bil to try out for the team. Bill had never played tennis before, but he showed up one day and played one of the young men on the lower levels of the team and beat him. The interesting thing is that Bill never gloried in that victory: he felt bad for the young man he beat, because Bill really didn’t want to make the team; he wanted to play baseball — which he did. But he always felt bad for the poor guy who lost to the one-day wonder.

For years we would hear a knock on the door and Bill would appear with “road kill” — assorted vegetables he grew in his garden and wanted to pass along to people he liked. It was a privilege and we were always delighted to have the fresh vegetables and to chat with Bill about how things were going in his part of the world. This went on for a number of years.

Then the “road kill” started to be a bit strange — a single ear of corn with some overripe vegetables; a green tomato and several pale cucumbers; or a squash and three cherry tomatoes. His garden was close to a farmer’s corn field and Bill apparently collected some of the farmer’s corn in recent weeks thinking it was his own sweet corn and passed it along with his daily hand-outs — which explained the odd taste of the corn of late. The other day when we came home there was a plastic bag with a few cherry tomatoes in it sitting on a chair next to the door. It didn’t make much sense. Nor did Bill when I saw him and asked him how things were going. He kept repeating himself and wanted to talk about things like “poor Joe-Pa” who had botched things at Penn State. he felt sorry for Paterno and wished things had ended differently for him. So did I. But my wife and I started to worry about Bill as well.

Then very recently we heard that Bill has been diagnosed with dementia. I saw him just the other day coming out of the Post Office and he had no idea who I was. How very sad. He is fortunate to have daughters and a loving wife who can keep an eye on him. But he will soon be moved to a home, I suppose, as those men and women in our society are when they can no longer recognize their loved ones. Alzheimer’s is a terrible thing to be around. My grandmother had it late in her life and I saw her disappear behind a cloud of uncertainty and wonder, having no idea who we were. It left an indelible impression. And my wife and I saw this happen to Bill as well. We will miss him — and his road kill.

Polishing Joe’s Image

Joe Paterno’s death was a sad business. Sad because he was unable to win the fight against cancer, but also because he made a mistake that will certainly tarnish his image evermore. A friend of mine called his life and death an “American tragedy,” tragic because he brought his spiritual suffering upon himself and American because we  place our sports heroes on a pedestal from which they have so far to fall. And we also endow them with a sense of entitlement that is seldom deserved. But there is more to ponder here. In the wake of Joe Paterno’s death we are once again reminded of the growing tendency in this culture not only to turn ordinary folks into tin gods but also to shirk our responsibility.

To be sure, there were things about Paterno that were admirable, and his success as a coach and a supporter of Penn State University are well recorded. He deserves praise for his contributions to the world in which he lived. But our tendency to create a larger-then-life figure out of a man who was clearly flawed — like the rest of us — is somewhat distressing. ESPN spent the day of the man’s death polishing his image so bright that it blinds us to the man’s flaws: the man could do no wrong. This is a kind of dishonesty that flies in the face of one of the few values our culture is proud of embracing. Further, the attempt by some of his supporters to place blame on the Board of Governors at Penn State for firing Paterno after his refusal to take action against Sandusky in the recent scandal that rocked the university and the college world, or to blame the “media” for covering the scandal and throwing mud on Paterno’s image — whether or not is was well deserved — is disquieting.

In the end, Paterno looked the other way as one of his favorite coaches abused a child. After all is said and done, that fact remains a part of the man’s legacy. He himself was apparently willing to accept responsibility for his action — or lack of action. After all, the religion he practiced recognizes sins of omission as well as sins of commission. But a number of his supporters want to cast the blame on the world that responded to that wrong as though Joe Paterno himself was blameless, despite the immense power he had at Penn State and his knowledge of what was going on in his own locker room. Such a deed needs to be uncovered and we need to learn from it.

The actions of the Board in firing Paterno were entirely appropriate, and the media’s attention to the actions of Sandusky and the surrounding scandal, was also appropriate — though, as usual, the media tend to exaggerate and are given to hype. We need to learn how to place both blame and credit where they belong. And despite the fact that Joe Paterno did many remarkable things during his lifetime, he was also to blame in the Sandusky case, as he was willing to admit. “I should have done more,” might well have been his dying words.

But the tendency of Paterno’s supporters to find fault with everyone but Paterno himself is our culture’s tendency as well. We look elsewhere when the blame for our own mistakes lies with us and no one else. It would seem that this is one feature of a culture that refuses to grow up. We cling to youth as though, next to unlimited wealth, it is the only thing worth having, and continue to act like adolescents well into our 60s and 70s. We really are a culture of spoiled children who are used to having things our way and don’t know how to behave when things go wrong. Like the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, we immediately look elsewhere to see where we can place the blame. As I say, Paterno was apparently able to accept responsibility for his failure to speak out. Perhaps we should take a page from his book and accept the fact that we are ordinary folks who make mistakes and we need to learn how to accept the responsibility that goes with the freedom we like to brag about. Now that would be a legacy Paterno could be proud of!

The Cover-Up Culture

One of the things that has come out of the scandal at Penn State is the realization that there is a cover-up culture in large universities where Division I athletics reign supreme. That term was coined in the cover story that recently appeared in Sports Illustrated detailing the scandal at Penn State. But the notion that misbehavior, from simple cheating to felonies like rape and assault, need to be hushed up “to save the reputation of the university” is common. Not that all aberrant behavior, even at Penn State, manages to stay “in-house.” For example, it was reported by E.S.P.N. that in Happy Valley between 2002 and 2008, 46 players had been charged with a total of 163 crimes ranging from public urination to murder. The fact that these cases did not get national attention at the time is evidence of the immense influence the football coach at Penn State had not only at the university but in the region as well.  Until recent events surrounding the accusations against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State was generally regarded as “a haven of virtue,” as noted in Sports Illustrated.

For the most part, at Penn State Joe Paterno held immense power and saw to it that whenever possible  any misbehavior on the part of one of his football players was handled by the coaches and never got to the judicial board that handled all other student cases.  It is common for football teams like Paterno’s to have separate housing, separate practice and training facilities (even separate from the other athletic teams), to eat their meals as a group, and regard themselves as privileged members apart from the university community. This obviously breeds insularity and a feeling that the group is all that matters and rules do not apply, except for those made by the coaches. Needless to say, the education of the athletes is of minor importance. “There’s an emphasis on athletics that necessarily results in a de-emphasis on everything else,” according to Penn State journalism professor Russell Frank. “But a lot of us owe our jobs to [Paterno], and that’s attributable to how high-profile the football program has been.” ‘Best not to bite the hand that feeds us.

But the universities are at fault to allow this to happen, and all criticism should not be directed at the athletic teams. In principle, it is a relatively simple matter for the university president to disallow this sort of insularity and insist that the athletes be treated the same as all other students. However, it would be supremely difficult at a place like Penn State, because of the immense power that Paterno had, and the football team will doubtless continue to have. Additionally, it would be difficult for any single university to take the lead here, because the athletes expect and like the special treatment and they will seek out other teams that treat them as royalty and avoid any institution that doesn’t treat them as such. Furthermore, the universities are steeped in the cover-up culture, concerned about their reputation and willing to look the other way to protect their image. Thus we can expect the cover-ups to continue.

This short-term thinking that equates protecting the reputation of the university with secrecy in the face of misconduct extends beyond the athletics programs, of course. The “cover-up culture” permeates large — and even small — colleges and universities. In point of fact, I was involved in such a cover-up at the University of Rhode Island years ago when it was discovered that a fraternity had gotten a copy of the final exam in a logic class and those of us who were teaching logic had to get up at 5:00 AM the morning of the exam and pool our resources to put together another exam at the last minute — in spite of the fact that we all taught the class differently: no one knew whose exam had gotten out. When it was revealed that one of the fraternities on campus was selling the exam to other students — lined up into the street outside the frat house — absolutely nothing was done. Thinking the fraternity should at the very least be put on probation, I raised my voice in protest and was called into the Dean’s office and told to cool off. I was a lowly Instructor without tenure, so I did as I was told. But it was clear to me that the university didn’t want a “scandal” and wanted to keep things under wraps. They feared bad publicity above all else. In my way, I saw first hand how insidious is the cover-up culture. Imagine how intense the pressure must be in a large university with an athletic program that brings in millions of dollars to keep things “in-house” and make sure misconduct is hushed up.

It all comes down to priorities, of course, and it exemplifies, among other things, short-term thinking. But consider the irony: the cover-ups at Penn State that were supposed to preserve the university’s good name have resulted in a sullied reputation that will take years to clean up. The $1.5 recently pledged by that university to help abused children as recompense for the atrocities charged against Jerry Sandusky is a first step. But it is a small step in light of the atrocities alleged against an assistant football coach and the cover-up that followed.

The encouraging thing is that at least one other major university seems to have gotten the message. Syracuse University recently fired an assistant basketball coach who has allegedly abused young boys. This appeared, on the surface, to be a quick, no-nonsense response to allegations that would most assuredly taint the university’s reputation. We shall see if the effects of the Penn State scandal have long-term effects. Something has to give.

Paterno Revisited

A poll conducted by E.S.P.N. revealed recently that 51% of those polled approve of Penn State’s firing of Joe Paterno. That’s interesting, but not half as interesting as the other 49%. I assume that some of them have “no opinion,” an interesting condition to be in, I must say. But the remainder apparently think that the university was wrong to fire the man. What are they thinking?

To begin with, Joe Paterno is not the victim here. Assuming that the allegations in the case are well founded, the young boys who were molested by Jerry Sandusky are the victims (plural). Paterno has been hoist by his own petard; he made his bed and now he must lie in it. He failed to demand a complete investigation of the affair when he was able to intercede and he knew that an evil was being committed; he is culpable. Sympathy for the man, while understandable on its surface, is out of place — as Virgil pointed out to Dante when they worked their way through Hell. Just as those being punished were there by virtue of their own actions, so also Paterno suffers from the consequences of his own actions — or his failure to act.

To be sure, Joe Paterno seemed to be something that is lacking in today’s culture: a public figure deserving our adulation, a true hero. Yet he turned out to have feet of clay, like the rest of us. It is disillusioning and a sad business, but hardly tragic as Aristotle reminds us: the man, Paterno, lacks the quality of nobility and his “fall” was not that far. He is a wealthy man with a close family and a great many friends and he will doubtless manage to muddle through. But what about the others, the real victims here? Their lives will never be the same and they are the ones we must look to with sympathy, not the man who chose to ignore them. Paterno’s firing is mild punishment for a man who chose to look the other way

The issue involving Joe Paterno is quite simple at its center: we are responsible for the  things we choose to do as well as those things we choose not to do. That has been at the center of ethical theory for centuries. Religions, too, recognize sins of omission as well as sins of commission. Paterno is getting his just desserts. Sympathy for the man, including staged appearances by his former players, like Franco Harris, are tangential to the real issue which will always remain the damage that was done to at least eight young boys (that we know about) who were abused by Jerry Sandusky.

In the meantime, Sandusky was allowed out of jail on a measly $100,000 bail and is now wandering around Happy Valley, being interviewed by Bob Costas and proclaiming his innocence to a world that will soon have to try him. That is something for people to get upset about, and a curious scenario to say the least.

Who Are The Victims?

The student riots in Happy Valley following the firing of Joe Paterno must give us pause. To be sure, the media love to blow these things out of proportion to help their ratings, and it would be a mistake to think the entire campus of thousands of students is in an uproar at the firing of their favorite. So let’s say there are a few dozen at the heart of this sad event with a few hundred curious hangers-on who just want to see what’s going on — and maybe get their face on TV. Most of the students, we must assume, are attending classes, studying, or planning the next party. But what on earth were the idiots thinking who sent threatening letters to Coach McQueary whose only fault in this saga, we are told, was to report to Coach Paterno that he saw Sandusky molesting a young boy in the showers? It would be ironic if it is the same twisted sense of loyalty to a favorite that kept Paterno from bringing the whole mess into the open when he had the chance out of a sense of loyalty to his favorite assistant coach. That is, these idiots who single out for abuse the man with a conscience  have the same moral blindness that their hero exhibited toward a favorite assistant coach.

But let’s stand back and consider what’s going on here.  A man, Sandusky, was let go because he was allegedly guilty of molesting young boys. A fellow coach, McQueary, sees the event and reports it to his superior, Joe Paterno. Paterno then goes to his Athletics Director and reports the event in vague terms (from what we hear). But then nothing happens. Paterno’s moral blunder stems from his position of power at Penn State which gives him the ability to move mountains, yet he says nothing more. The event becomes known to the public at large and he is eventually fired for failure to do the right thing, which is the only thing the University could do in the circumstances. And then students riot over what they perceive to be an injustice, or, perhaps, simply because they are bored. Some of them write threatening notes to McQueary which forces the University to allow McQueary a leave of absence to avoid further violence. There are numerous victims in this sad affair, but the real victims who are doubtlessly suffering from untold trauma, to wit, those young boys who were molested, are being forgotten.

The Paterno Scandal

It appears that Joe Paterno did not break the law in not coming forward and making a greater effort to put an end to the atrocities that were taking place in his world. Today he has announced that he will retire at the end of this season. This, of course, solves nothing. The legal issue will be sorted in the courts, but the moral issues loom much larger and require deep thought. At this point, I dare say, the “who’s to say?” group will raise their hue and cry and insist that morality is just a matter of opinion. But this is absurd. As Hannah Arendt has noted, “there is a distinction between right and wrong, and it is an absolute distinction, unlike distinctions between large and small, heavy and light, which are relative; and, second, every human being is able to make this distinction.” It is self-evident that Mother Teresa was a good woman; it is self-evident that Hitler was an evil person. We can debate these things, but we all know this to be the case.

Joe Paterno was morally culpable if he knew about and was in a position to put a stop to the atrocities that were occurring in his own football program. Responsibility implies knowledge and ability. Given his lofty position at Penn State — some say he is higher in the hierarchy than even the President of that University — and his apparent knowledge of what his favorite assistant was up to, Jeo Paterno has much to answer for. Morality trumps the law in every case.