“What I Was Supposed To”

Penn State students at candlelight memorial

Penn State students at candlelight memorial

It’s a clear, very pretty fall day here in State College, Pennsylvania. Sitting at the moment in a cafe, looking out at the beautiful weather, it’s hard to believe the shitstorm that roared through this town all week.

From what I’ve seen on the internet and heard on the radio, there cannot be very many people in America who don’t know what happened here. This morning President Obama commented on it. The fact that the sex abuse scandal, and the palid response to it by people in power, has so shaken the university shows a problem with the very culture here. This is an enormous university, where good things and even remarkable good things have been done, with a history going back 150 years, and yet the university has allowed itself to build much of its identity around football.

A couple of those people with power who did almost nothing were the university president and football coach Joe Paterno. The Board of Trustees recognized that they needed to seriously clean house after learning that even though there was an eyewitness to a child being raped, not one person, all the way up to the university president, thought of calling the police. (Or we can be incredibly cynical and imagine that yes, they did think of it, and decided not to, because the rapist was so closely involved in the football program.)

So the president was fired. No one cared much. Then Coach Joe Paterno, often called “legendary”, was fired. In response, many Penn State students shamed themselves and shamed their school by taking angrily to the streets. Some went into riot mode and did damage. (And to give proper credit, last night thousands of students at last did the right thing, holding a candlelight ceremony to commemorate the sexual abuse victims.)

Given the general purpose of this blog, focusing on language or writing (most of the time), I want to look at some of the language surrounding Joe Paterno. If this were another school and Paterno were not involved, most of you would never have heard of this, the town would not have filled up with reporters, and we would not be talking about sex abuse of children. So maybe thank God Paterno was involved, because we need to talk about it.

Why would Penn State students tear down light poles after learning that Joe Paterno was fired? He really is in some sense “legendary” here, and to kids who are college age, the 84-year-old Paterno has been here since the earth first cooled and God laid the foundations of Penn State. Feelings of emotional connection are often expressed with special ways of naming. This is ubiquitous with general terms like “honey” or “dear”, and individual circumstances can lead to a special word for one person. This has happened with Paterno, who is frequently called JoePa (usually spelled that way, with no space). Although the “Pa” ending is the first syllable of his last name, it also happens to be an English colloquialism for father. Or as one of my dinner guests said last night of the students’ feelings toward Paterno, “He’s their grandfather.”

These attitudes of affection can be seen in other ways with language here in State College. Before football games, some students camp out to get first-row tickets, and their encampment is called “Paternoville”. It’s also possible to go to the local Dunkin Donuts here and buy reusable plastic coffee cups with a cartoon image of Paterno on the side and the phrase “We love our Joe”.

And let’s insert a statement from a student quoted online describing these feelings: “I hesitate to use the word ‘godlike,’ because it’s a little strong, but he really is a mythical figure around here.” Another person tried to streeeeetch a current political slogan and insert it where it really comes off as weird and incongruous, holding up a sign reading “Occupy McKee Street. We are the 99% that believes JoePa deserves to stay.”

Everyone wants to be both loved and admired. That’s just part of our humanity. But we can want it so much that we become deaf to what is unpleasant, such as admitting we failed a harsh responsibility, like reporting a friend to the police. This is what Paterno—and everyone else—obviously should have done with Jerry Sandusky, who was raping the child. I understand that it would be hard to turn a friend in, maybe I would fail too, but the difficulty does not diminish the moral obligation, especially given the heinous nature of the crime. It’s not as if Sandusky was merely stealing from the football fund.

What Paterno did, so far as we know, was report the incident to his boss and did nothing else. Speaking of how he handled the information on Sandusky, Paterno said, “…I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention…” Legally, he is right.

This statement also says everything about Joe Paterno’s astonishing deafness to his moral responsibility. While he reported the incident, in reality, Paterno had no boss. Several years ago the university president tried to fire him, and he just refused to go. Paterno had enormous power at the university, and he was famous for following up on how his players were doing in individual classes. And yet, when a child was raped in the facility he ran, he reported to his “boss” and then said, “I did what I was supposed to.”

This week when students rallied at Paterno’s house, he came out and made a statement, in part saying to a noisy crowd, “And as I said, I don’t know if you heard me or not, is, you know, the kids who were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you.”

Do you cringe when you read this? “Say a prayer for them” sounds good, of course, but what about the phrase “victims or whatever they want to say”? Whatever they want to say? Does this sound like a phrase we might use to dismiss some nonsense we’re hearing? I doubt that’s how Paterno really intended to sound, but then it’s followed with a sentence that uses a softer term than we’d expect (“tough life”) and a vague phrase (“certain things”), as if he does not recognize that being raped as a child (“certain things”) can lead to permanent emotional scarring (“tough life”).

The statement I’m quoting from here actually ends in a way that makes Paterno look even more oblivious to the overall situation. Following the phrase “do certain things to you” he immediately went on to say to the crowd in front of his house: “But anyway, you’ve been great. You’ve been really great.”

And then…he shouted, “We are!” and the crowd replied, “Penn State!” He ended his statement with a pep rally.

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