I am a Penn State graduate; I received my Master’s in History in 1999, and I was awarded honors for that degree. I sought to complete my Ph.D. in the same program, but was one of the people marginalized and ultimately edged out because we did not fit the administration’s vision and mission for the History Department they were interested in building.
I worked with Penn State faculty of staggering intelligence, experience, and expertise. My advisor and Ph.D. committee members helped me acquire my own firm foundation in the history of ancient and medieval Europe and Japan. I collaborated with experts from a variety of disciplines on a curriculum-development program supported by an NEH grant, and I helped organize, and even presented at, the university’s international medieval conference. I’m not going to name-drop, but I’m immensely proud of the people of international and enduring stature with whom I studied.
I taught History, Religious Studies, and English at Penn State, as a Teaching Assistant, Lecturer, and Adjunct Faculty member, for 10 years. I wrote my own courses, from curriculum to annotated primary source compilations, and I earned what I was told were “impossibly high” student evaluation scores every semester. My students were, for the most part, bright and motivated and civic-minded.
All of this is to say that, when I talk about Penn State, I know of which I speak.
The people who say that Penn State football is the local religion are not wrong. In fact, it’s a more apt comparison than they probably realize. The institution is storied and expansive, inextricably associated with the reputation of the school and anyone who has passed through it. Its financial impact is difficult to quantify: there’s no question the program has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, but there’s also no question that the school allocates resources to athletics that can and should be spent on the university’s actual mission of education. As such, Penn State students pay what amount to private school prices for a state school education (mostly conducted by grad students, a topic for another day), because it comes with a winning team.
And while the edifice of Penn State football bears striking resemblance to the Catholic Church, its history and reputation has been largely constructed around a single person, much like today’s evangelical megachurches. Joe Paterno’s record may be the substance of Penn State’s athletic reputation, but his personality is the soul. Penn State doesn’t just claim a winning football program — it claims a moral one, a program that forms young men into admirable athletes and upstanding people.
So the most appropriate comparison to draw for the impact of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case is to the Catholic Church sex abuse case. He contributed to the rise and reputation of the institution, while using the access and authority it conferred to exploit children who reasonably believed that their rights were nothing next to the man who was assaulting them. He used a charitable foundation to situate himself among his targets, and to shield himself from suspicion for being seen in their vicinity. He probably believed that these kids should be grateful for the attention and advantages he was giving them, and that the sex acts he forced them into were a fair exchange for that.
And, of course, he was utterly, criminally, repellently wrong.
But when the superiors who derived their reputations from that same institution were faced with proof that someone had exploited and subverted its authority for personal, immoral gains, their first thought was to protect the institution, not the victims. They surely thought they were being careful at first, wanting to “gather all the facts before acting.” Except that to act would destroy something that so many people depended on for income, security, and self-esteem. So a wish to proceed slowly and carefully slid into defensiveness, then resistance, then cover-up.
And even now, it’s easier for those who still get their sense of worth — after all, the cheer that goes up all over State College is “We Are…Penn State!” — from the institution to question the sincerity and timing of the victims, rather than deal with the hard fact that someone used the faith and pride a community had invested in them to do something unspeakable.
The kids who marched in the streets last night — it wasn’t a riot; the lampposts in Beaver Canyon get torn down for everything from St. Patrick’s Day to a busy night during Arts Fest — might have said they were doing it in support of their beloved JoePa, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about the value of what they’re at Penn State for. Most of them are going to graduate twenty to fifty thousand dollars in debt, much more than they would pay to go to one of the many Commonwealth Campuses across Pennsylvania. Part of what they’re paying for is the experience in State College, and for almost 50 years, that experience depends on having a team to be proud of, and a school that others admire.
It’s their reputation, too, that’s been destroyed, without consent or knowledge. Firing Joe Paterno was the only legitimate action that Penn State could take, but to kids and alumni, that’s an admission of guilt that’s on par with having to admit that the Pope is no longer infallible. And if that can happen, then maybe Penn State can’t offer them the security they thought they were getting.
If boys can be raped in the football complex, can anyone be safe anywhere on campus?
If JoePa would protect his reputation before that of the players whose futures ride on it, can any student count on the faculty and administration to prepare them for the harsh world that awaits them?
If a charity can be used to target and groom victims among the children it’s supposed to be helping, then has the world’s largest student-run philanthropy organization been doing good or harm (and what the hell have they been on their feet for 72 hours for, anyway)?
And if Penn State’s reputation crumbles with its football program, then what is that name on their diploma and résumé going to be worth?