Allow me a point of personal privilege for some remarks on the situation at Penn State. The latest development is that football coach Joe Paterno submitted a pre-emptive retirement, effective at the end of the season, before the Board of Trustees of the university meets to investigate the case. The day before, Paterno appeared at an impromptu pep rally on his front lawn, speaking to student supporters. Incredibly, this was his first public statement since the revelations of a 15-year sex abuse scandal involving his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, and it included him leading chants of “We Are… Penn State!” as well as this surreal remark:
The kids that were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. Tough life, when people do certain things to you.
Paterno said in his retirement statement that the Board of Trustees should “not spend a single minute discussing my status” and that they have more important things to work on. Clearly he snuck in the retirement so that he wouldn’t have to face any accountability for the moral and ethical failing of doing the bare minimum required by law when faced with the reality of a child sex predator in his midst, raping children in his locker rooms. The trustees were already planning Paterno’s exit, and even though it’s Wednesday and their final home game of the season is Saturday, it would be surprising if Paterno gets to coach another down.
This whole sorry spectacle goes to the failure of institutions, the poverty of justice, that has characterized American and even global society in recent history. I have several connections to Penn State. My wife went there. My mother went there, and we’ve calculated that she was in all likelihood a freshman when Jerry Sandusky was a senior. Growing up in Philadelphia meant that a good portion of the college-bound people you went to high school with went to Penn State. It meant that Penn State was a part of the surrounding fabric of daily life. It was a source of pride for the community, not only athletically but even academically, in recent years. It was seen as a model for integrity and citizenship.
And one sex predator, as well as an institutional structure determined to act in their own selfish interest rather than the interests of the victims, has crashed that to the ground. This will take State College decades to repair. The university athletic department and the office of the President must face wholesale changes. I agree with most of the sentiments of this Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial.
But in a sense, none of this is all that surprising, given what we’ve seen with the coverup of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, or the coverup of torture, or warrantless wiretapping, or the attempted coverup for the wholesale theft of millions of homes and the destruction of the US residential housing market. All of these crimes have not seen any accountability, as factors of self-protection weighed heavier than justice. When viewing a depraved sex act between one of his former coaches and a child, graduate assistant Mike McQueary just sent it up the chain of command. Same with Paterno and everyone involved with Penn State. Sandusky may finally face justice now, but only after ruining the lives of countless victims, years after he was initially discovered by those who could have ended the abuse. This is why we lack faith in institutions, in their responsiveness, in their conscience.
It’s a horrifying cap to an era of elite failure.