Today I was sitting in the break room at one of my many jobs when a girl I work with asked me, “So what do you think of the whole thing with Penn State?” It was about the fifteenth time I had been asked the question; the fourteenth time, the tone with which I answered it was dripping with exasperation. I had just gotten to the point where I was tired of answering it, tired of having to think about it, tired of having to verbalize my feelings on the enormous scandal that has plunged my alma mater into shame.
On this occasion, though, I gave her a sincere answer.
I told her that at Penn State, there is an air about the entire place of being just a little bit better than everyone else. And to find out that it’s not, and in fact that it’s worse than anyone could have possibly imagined, is shocking.
And that was where I trailed off, and cast my eyes toward the floor.
The shock is built on a foundation of more emotions than I have time to write about, everything from blinding rage to a staggering inability to comprehend everything I’m hearing in the news. The amount and type of misconduct that was allowed to proliferate at the university, the decision of athletic officials and the administration to simply sweep the issue under the rug while issuing a toothless ban, the failure of a graduate assistant and the head football coach (a man who is said to be of tremendous moral fiber) to follow up the allegations with local police… The amount of negligence is hard to believe to begin with, and almost impossible to believe from an institution held in such high regard by so many.
If the allegations are true, every Penn State alum who has walked the campus over the past 15 years will have to come to terms with the fact that they were lied to every single day of their enrollment. Their tuition dollars helped bankroll the lie. The university, seeking to avoid scandal, addressed the matter only in whispers audible only to them. By not acting, school officials were complicit in Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes. Their silence allowed a pattern of abuse to develop and flourish. They chose the reputation of a school legend over the children whose lives he was ruining.
In putting the football program over right and wrong, the university was badly missing the point. But so too is the current student body, many of who have taken to the streets of State College to riot (or rally or whatever you want to call it, it’s the same stupid mob they form every time they’re emotional about anything) even as I type. They are protesting what looks to be the imminent departure of Joe Paterno, not wanting the school’s greatest icon to meet disgrace. In the process they are destroying the last vestiges of Penn State’s integrity, valuing the reputation of a school legend over any and all else. It doesn’t matter to them that Paterno’s judgment, informing school officials and letting it go at that, put more children in harm’s way.
Even if the students understood why Paterno had to go, a total administrative overhaul would not be sufficient. Undoing the damage begins at weeding the program of those complicit, but the damage itself can never be completely repaired. Children were subjected to abuse for years and years and years; that’s a reality that isn’t going away. If the school doesn’t make it a priority to take care of the victims, and if it doesn’t take it upon itself to rise from the ashes and lead the crusade against sexual abuse, then here again the university is missing the point. The only way Penn State can save itself is to come to peace with its past and look to the future for the chance to make amends.
Instead, the school is on the defensive, trying desperately to save its image even as it foots the legal bills for two former employees facing criminal charges in connection with Sandusky’s investigation. Penn State expects the student body to pay for the defense of two men whose actions have no defense. It expects students to pay for how others went horribly wrong.
Putting the pieces together has been completely overwhelming, and in the process I’ve lost faith in everything I once had absolute trust in. I can’t trust that the university will do the right thing, that officials will take their lumps and then do everything necessary to restore the school’s name. If this evening’s actions are any indication, I can’t trust that students or alumni will recognize the necessity of such an action. I want to believe that Penn State is still a great place to learn and grow up, that the people running it will do right by students past and present, but I can’t have faith in that either.
In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine ever having that faith again. How can I believe in an institution that would rather pretend a terrible crime didn’t happen rather than try to stop it? How can I root for a football team whose success blinded the judgment of so many? How can I ever walk by Old Main again and still believe that it stands as a symbol of knowledge, integrity and excellence?
I want to believe that Penn State is still exactly as I remember it, the finest school in the finest place in the world. But now I know that isn’t true.
Earlier in this article I wrote of a Penn State superiority, and it’s a superiority I felt every single day, for no other reason than an extreme pride in where I came from. The football team hangs its hat on the slogan “Success With Honor,” which could apply to much of the student body. I believed that one day I would embody that motto. I believed in it because I believed in Penn State.
Now, I’m not really sure what it means, if it means anything at all. Success there may be. But there certainly will be no honor.
Photo Credit: Matt Rourke, Associated Press