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Why Honoring Joe Paterno Still Matters
Writing anything about Joe Paterno at this point is futile. If you’re reading this, your mind has already been made up. If you are not a Penn Stater, we’re an unapologetic cult. If you are a Penn Stater, you’re probably nonplussed, irrationally angry that the news about Paterno being honored before the Temple game is too little too late, or part of the smarmy faction that believesthey are morally superior for having lived inside the cult but made it out alive.
I understand this. I don’t intend to change your mind on Paterno — I’ve already tried — but missing in the conversation is any discussion about why honoring Paterno, or university history in general, is even an important endeavor at all. This becomes incredibly challenging, because making any salient point about Paterno requires another ten points of requisite context. Anything without that nuance on this topic is irresponsible, but including it can become a drag, or make it seem like the author is trying to “explain away” facts (or worse, feeling unsympathetic to child sexual abuse victims). Nor has the pro-Paterno crowd been the most tactful advocates for its cause, at least online. All of these factors make this topic so toxic and impossible to manage.
Knowing full well I’m wading into an abyss, here’s my best crack at it.
Before that, there is one important caveat (I told you the context was important).
If you are 100 percent certain that Joe Paterno was the ringleader of a calculated coverup of child sexual abuse, you are irredeemable. A conversation of this sort is impossible to have without the acknowledgement the facts aren’t as clear as some have made them out to be and that many smart, decent people outside of Penn State (Bob Costas, Jerry Sandusky’s prosecutor, Mike Kryzewski, etc.) have serious doubts about Paterno’s culpability and the Freeh Report’s conclusions. The unfortunate reality is that the people who know the most about this case are also the most susceptible to bias. It’s what makes real conversations about this topic so difficult — Penn Staters are easier to dismiss as lunatics out of hand, but virtually everyone outside of the bubble understandably doesn’t follow this story on a daily basis because it doesn’t impact their lives or their Alma Mater.
But to the caveat: If Paterno knowingly and systematically covered up child sexual abuse for decades, then all of this is moot. The evidence, by any objective mind, does not support a coverup assertion. It is not impossible that it happened that way, but the evidence, objectively, makes it seem increasingly unlikely. If you’re one of the thousands of Twitter heroes who has chimed in on this topic in the last day or so, this is probably unthinkable to you — the equivalent of me denying the moon landing. After seven years as a student — trust me — I understand that. But one does not usually commit a coverup if one tells three other people about what happened — knowing that at least nine people would know in total — without some quid pro quo to buy silence. Frankly, a case to prove such a thing would be laughed out of court, and there’s a reason no charges were ever brought against him when they were with the other administrators. And I’ll say this without qualification: Anyone who is 100 percent certain (or near 100 percent certain) that a coverup occurred is not a serious thinker or interpreter of the facts. I’m not talking about people who think that Paterno should have done more at the time — he, himself, admitted this, knowing what we know in hindsight. But the moral gap between “coverup” and “misjudgment” is vast and important to note. Unfortunately, judging the conversation based on Twitter alone, it seems like a large swath of the country is unwilling to consider the distinction or the nuance. I suppose this should come as no surprise by now, but the discourse yesterday was as bad as it’s been since 2011 or 2012.
In any case, if you are unwilling to consider the possibility that there wasn’t a coverup, you are not intellectually serious and this column is not for you. Serious people do not speak in absolutes about situations like this, although I suppose the national sports commentariat has never been accused of being serious. I am speaking instead to the many people — Penn Staters and otherwise — who know Paterno wasn’t evil, but still don’t understand why we should still care about a guy who has been dead for five years, especially at the cost of infuriating a significant number of people nationally.
To understand why honoring Joe Paterno still matters requires a thoughtful understanding of the Penn State Spirit.
And here’s another thing: Sports don’t matter, unless they’re put in the context of life. Teenagers and young adults running around a field throwing balls matters little unless you view it as a metaphor for the extension of the spirit of the university (or in the case of professional sports, an extension of the spirit of a city). What are the moments you think about at Penn State over the last five or so years?
For me, it’s not the score of a game. It’s guys like Michael Zordich saying things like this:
“We want to let the nation know that we’re proud of who we are. We are the true Penn Staters. We’re gonna stick together through this. As a team we don’t see this as a punishment; this is an opportunity. This is the greatest opportunity a Penn Stater could ever be given. We have an obligation to Penn State and we have an ability to fight not just for a team, not just for a university, but for every man who has worn the blue and white on that gridiron before us.”
When I think of the 2013 Wisconsin game, I don’t think about the X’s and O’s, how many yards Allen Robinson or Zach Zwinak had, what play so-and-so-ran, or really, anything about the game. I think about what Bill O’Brien said after the game:
“Seniors…What you meant to this program. What you meant for this university. We will remember you forever.”
“We will remember you forever.” Let those words sit for a moment.
Sports don’t matter unless we insist on remembering instead of forgetting. The Penn State Spirit is a collective of these memories from the past, all while pushing us forward to form a better future. What does it say about us as people if we choose to forget people like Michael Zordich, Bill O’Brien, or those Penn State seniors?
What does it say about us as a community if we choose to forget about people like Joe Paterno?
Consider the ancient story of the great medieval King Arthur.
When the young boy, Arthur, pulled the sword Excalibur from the stone, he did not automatically become the rightful King of England. Many of the lords and nobles of the realm withheld their fealty and allegiance from him, until he should prove in combat and in battle his qualities of courage and leadership.
The last battle was the greatest and most trying. But Arthur and those who believed in him were victorious. That night, when the battle was over, his men gathered together, fresh from combat, covered with sweat, and blood, and bandages, but elated in their victory and the triumph of their King.
As the story goes, the wizard Merlin came forward, and he said to them: “Remember this moment. Catch now the spirit of victory and joy that wells up in you and overflows. Catch it at full tide, and hold it. For out of this spirit and feeling shall the future be wrought.”
And King Arthur stepped forward and said, “Yes, let us catch the spirit and remember it. For this, I shall build a round table, and all of you shall sit around it, and whenever we are together, this we shall remember. It shall not pass away, as deeds of others pass away into forgetfulness, but shall be remembered down through the ages. For thanks to the wisdom of wise Merlin, we shall not forget, not suffer the doom of other men, who, though accomplishing greater deeds, were buried under the veil of forgetfulness.
“No, this spirit and this moment shall live down through the ages, and wherever men shall gather to wonder if they can do great deeds, they shall remember us, and in remembering, take heart. And in every future time, when faith and courage are put to the test and emerge triumphantly, they shall say: Arthur and his Knights, and the Spirit of the Round Table still lives!”
And today, fourteen hundred years later, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are remembered.
Put this in the context of Penn State, a place that so many people hold as a part of their soul. Who will we remember in fourteen hundred years? It will be great presidents, like Evan Pugh, George Atherton, Ralph Hetzel, and Eric Walker. It will be transformative students, administrators, and townsfolk, like Fred Lewis Pattee, Frederick Watts, James Irvin, Calvin Waller, and Rebecca Ewing. It will be sports heroes, like Wally Triplett, Lenny Moore, Bob Higgins, Jesse Arnelle, and the football players who stayed after 2011. It will be dozens of other women and men who will come along in the next hundreds and thousands of years and leave their mark on this place.
And, perhaps more than anyone, it will be Joe Paterno.
All of these men and women who have left their marks on the Nittany Valley deserve their place at the Round Table, deserve to be remembered, and deserve to be honored appropriately so that future generations may know their greatness and strive for it themselves. For without them — and countless others — there is no Penn State. Without the spirit of these people and those times, the present and future have less meaning, and we as a community have a thinner, less stimulating culture.
As Penn Staters, we can celebrate James Franklin’s Nittany Lions this season as hard as we ever had, all while appreciating the context of the now in the spirit of the institution as an aggregate of its past. James Franklin and his players will write their own stories. The ghosts of the past do not hinder their progress, but give meaning to their goals — give meaning to our identity. The student newspaper, predictably, editorialized today that any sort of Paterno acknowledgement is “insensitive to the future.” What a good many well-intentioned people fail to realize is without an appreciation for the past, the spirit of now has less meaning. In fifty years, we all hope we will be able to tell our children and grandchildren tales of Saquon Barkley hurdling foolish-looking linebackers and James Franklin returning the program to its past prestige. The great people of Happy Valley today will be remembered tomorrow — and we will learn from their triumph and disaster — but only if we allow the nihilism behind the phrase “move on” to fade away.
Ben Novak, a retired four-term Penn State trustee and author of “Is Penn State a Real University?: An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal,” writes about the Penn State Spirit:
“The past, because it was lived, cannot really be destroyed. It can only be covered over, like a lush jungle that gets condensed into a pool of oil or a vein of coal, just waiting to be drilled or mined to have its energy released. But you have to dig for it, and you have to know how to use it. When we don’t know what is in the past, we cannot use it, and we cannot release its power.
“Fortunately we do not live in a world where the past, present, and future are in airtight cubicles that we must look at separately as though the past is dead and gone, the present stinks, and the future is always bright. Rather, the past, present, and future are fluid, and keep washing over each other. There were a lot of good things in the past that can brighten the present, and a lot of things in the past that seem to be missing in the present, but which could brighten your future.”
“Spirit,” Novak writes, “is indestructible. But only if, in a practical sense, we allow it to come alive in us.”
Which is to say this: If you’re worked up or disappointed about the fact that Penn State might play a video and invite some lettermen on the field during a football game in two weeks to honor a man who is on the Mount Rushmore of the institution, I would encourage you to think harder about what Penn State really stands for.
There’s also a second position — that honoring someone so controversial will result in so much negative PR that it will damage the institution to the point of not being worth the hassle and discomfort or somehow overshadows what the current team is trying to accomplish.
And to that, I say this: You are selling the Penn State Spirit short.
Consider these words from the documentary “Sanctioned” by Chris Buchignani about what the last five years in State College have proved:
“It’s really enheartening and strengthening to know that what you always believed was right about the place is real. That we don’t have to believe anymore, now we know. And not just that it’s real. As close as you can come to damn near invincible on this earth. That’s what Penn State is.”
Virtue is doing the right thing even when you know you will be criticized for it. This is the last great test of the Grand Experiment that Paterno inadvertently left for us. Will we, as a community and as an institution, all bonded together in the Penn State Spirit, do the right thing despite the backlash?
Judging from yesterday’s news, it looks like the answer could be yes.
Consider all Penn State has been through in the last five years. No academic institution in the history of the world has been the recipient of as much vitriol. And yet, we have endured. Penn State just admitted the largest freshmen class in the history of the institution — freshmen who walked across this campus when searching for colleges and felt the Penn State Spirit enter their hearts, as it has for 161 years. Academic rankings across the university continue to rise. Application numbers continue to set records and exceed the wildest expectations. People from all over the world are beating down the doors to attend Penn State, despite it all. Athletics teams across the board continue to excel and compete at high levels. Arguably, the health of the institution has never been stronger.
All this, despite the millions of tweets, columns, articles, and nonsense that has been said about Penn State for the last five years.
This pattern is all too familiar. A major Paterno or Sandusky-related news incident occurs. The national conversation, driven by folks who aren’t interested in nuance, turns against Penn State. It lasts for a day, maybe two, sometimes three. And then the Penn State Spirit continues on, unchanged. Students continue to pour in for a life changing education. Alumni continue to get great jobs. And we, the people of Happy Valley, continue to survive — nay, thrive.
The “opening old wounds” argument only has meaning if there is a tangible negative effect on the institution beyond a few days of keyboard heroes having their fun. Put away your keyboard. Turn off Twitter. Walk across campus when classes are changing and take it all in. There was a corporate career fair all week. There will be a football game on Saturday, and all eyes and minds will be focused on the 2016 Nittany Lions.
Is an on-field ceremony — hell, even a statue — and another day of “Penn State just doesn’t get it!” columns going to change any of that?
I insist that it already would have.
“As close as you can come to damn near invincible on this earth. That’s what Penn State is.”
Virtue is doing the right thing when you know it will be hard. That’s what Joe Paterno preached. And that is how we should — and will — press forward, with our sights set on the future of the institution and an unwavering appreciation for its past greatness — Joe Paterno, and otherwise.