It never ceases to amaze me: We could be on the brink of economic or ecological catastrophe, our roads and bridges crumbling to dust, our coastal cities threatened by surging seas, and we’ll get worked up about flag burning or same-sex marriage, or this president’s philandering and that one’s birth certificate.
The latest instance: Penn State knowingly harbored a child rapist for at least a decade. So what are we arguing about? Changing the name of an ice cream flavor! Pulling down the Paterno statue! Suspending the football program!
All of these debates are a bit off the point. Yes, the honors we bestow reveal a lot about who and what we value. But passionate arguments over Peachy Paterno? Please.
And as for the statue, Joe Paterno has already been pulled down. What remains is a chunk of metal.
The hottest debate centers on the future of football. At issue is whether the Sandusky scandal is a football scandal. The commentators who seek the “death penalty” for Penn State football say of course it’s a football scandal: The football coach was more powerful than anyone else at the university. When Joe Paterno said let’s not call the law on Jerry Sandusky, the law was not called.
If that doesn’t indicate a lack of “institutional control,” to use the NCAA’s term, what does?
I don’t disagree. But I question whether there’s any more “institutional control” at Michigan State, Ohio State, Boise State or any other school with big-time athletic programs.
Ohio State President Gordon Gee’s response to questions about whether he would fire Jim Tressel has been oft-quoted of late: “I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
A revealing joke, if ever there was one. The importance of intercollegiate sports is inflated to a preposterous degree. The Sandusky scandal is just further proof.
Instead of punishing Penn State football – its players, its new coaches, right down to the chambermaids who owe their jobs to the influx of out-of-towners on football weekends – we should all take a hard look at how we spend our time, our money and our passion. The priorities are seriously awry.
Having agreed that the global culture of sports is pretty messed up, I also want to make a qualified defense of the local culture of Happy Valley (a nickname that will never again be used unironically).
Is there a cult of St. JoePa here? There is. A see-no-evil, circle-the-wagons mentality among true-blue members of Nittany Nation? No question.
The cult of JoePa offers further evidence that facts rarely change beliefs. If your starting point is faith that Paterno wouldn’t do the things he is said to have done, then he simply couldn’t have done them.
But every dominant culture spawns counter-cultures. In State College, the counter-cultures are arty, punky, folky, outdoorsy, intellectual and political.
A couple of years ago, I was at a party attended by a number of international faculty members. There was talk of seeing some obscure movie at the State Theatre that Sunday night. Someone asked if they ought to get there early, in case there’s a crowd.
I laughed. “Trust me,” I said, “there is not going to be a crowd.”
It was Super Bowl Sunday.
Clearly, not everyone around here lives and dies with what happens on green fields or hardwood courts. This place is more complicated than the “Mayberry” stereotypes we’ve seen in the national media. It’s a college town, for crying out loud. Our faculty members come from all over the world and have been all over the world, which kind of gives the lie to views of the culture as insular.
But really, any small town has more layers than the metro dailies are able to make out from their urban perches. I know. I’ve lived in a few.
This is not an apology for Happy Valley. The Freeh report contains a host of recommendations aimed at preventing future abuses. It’s not enough to say that Joe Paterno’s longevity, success and reputation for probity were unique and that neither new coach Bill O’Brien nor any of his successors will be able to amass that kind of power.
Nor is it enough to say that no future Penn State Board of Trustees will cede as much power to any future Penn State president as the old board ceded to Graham Spanier.
It is the job of everyone who cares about this university – trustees, administration, faculty, staff, students and alumni -- to see to it that effective checks and balances are installed and to recommit to the idea of Penn State as a place where academics matter more than athletics.
These tasks are going to be a lot harder and more complicated than renaming an ice cream flavor, pulling down a statue or finding something else to do on an autumn Saturday.