Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pater Familias

First, let it be said, because we need reminding: Jerry Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. That said, the mounting evidence and continual parade of child victims leads one to believe that this man abused a position of power to fulfill his sordid sexual appetite for young boys. Whether as Penn State's defensive coordinator for its football team, or as part of a group working with youth, this man apparently used his power and influence to perpetrate one of the more heinous crimes our society has to cope with: child rape. Anyone and everyone who had contact with this man, who had any information, evidence, or testimony to give, who did not pursue this matter to the fullest, is suspect.

That brings me to Joe Paterno.

For those unfamiliar with NCAA college football and the reputation of Penn State in the sport, let it simply be said that Coach Joe Paterno, "JoePa" to players and students alike, recently became the coach with the most wins in NCAA football history, and under his stewardship, guided the Nittany Lions to glory on many occasions. He was involved with the program in some capacity for over 60 years. His name was held in respect  and spoken with awe by friend and foe alike. He prided himself of making his teams strong on and off the field. He was a product of a by-gone era of college football, who at several points, looked as if the game he loved had passed him by in the modern age. He brought Penn State football glory and added to its reputation for excellence.

He will be remembered for little of that now.

The problem with being so involved with one organization/company/program in a position of ultimate authority, is that familiarity breeds contempt, not of an overt nature necessarily, but of the type that allows the individual to  ignore or gloss over or pay little attention to things that happen within their purview. Such is the case with Joe Paterno, when he was informed of Jerry Sandusky's crime. He did what was prudent, the minimum necessary, but pursued it no further. For a man of his proclaimed moral stature, a man of unshakable faith, to hear of a grown man using a young boy for sexual pleasure and not having that rock him to the core enough to go beyond such a minimum standard is both shocking and appalling. This man, father to his own children, and "father" to the young men he coached, not having his stomach turned by the information placed before him to the point of turning in his defensive coordinator, is unconscionable.

Further still, and much worse, is the idea that Joe Paterno told his supervisor, and here was another person not sickened and nauseated enough to take action. The whole sad and tragic story, unraveling throughout the years, is a tale of an organization so steeped in the mystique of its proud history, that no one -- from the janitor who first observed the child rape all the way up to the president of the university -- thought to take the simplest, most direct course of action to call Jerry Sandusky into account, by going to the police. Hiding behind a reputation, a university turned its back on helpless, defenseless, sexually abused boys, and did nothing.

Coach Joe Paterno is only the most visible face of the tragedy, but that is enough, because you would think that this man, paragon of his sport and decent human being, would have done something. Perhaps, in the end, this man, too, was entirely caught up in who he was perceived as. Joe Paterno the man was crushed under the weight of Joe Paterno the college football legend.

If he was so consumed by his fame, as it appears, then so was the university, to the point that students, outraged at his firing, serenaded their fallen football idol by taking to the streets and starting a riot. It was, no doubt, without much thought that they did this, for such action said unequivocally that the fame and good name of their football coach superseded the broken spirit and abused bodies of young boys raped by a trusted elder. It never occurred to them that by showing such abject outrage at the simple firing of a football coach, they were creating an object lesson in the pervasive ills of our society and how those we lionize and what they do are put on a plane of importance that far exceeds the reality of their situation. Football coaches will come and go, glory on the gridiron will be had and forfeited, but a young boy raped by a man will lose something that is not so easily replaced, and will suffer pains that will not simply heal over time.

This tale should tell us an important truth: we have sacrificed the reality of a humanity teetering on the brink, for the panacea that is glitz, glamour, fame, and fortune. We turn people, not so dissimilar from ourselves, into icons, icons that cannot hold up against the light and the scrutiny they inevitably receive. We have misplaced our values and our morals, when such a thing as the rape of a child does not bother us enough. Ask the homeless, ask the hungry, ask the jobless, ask the beaten and abused, if the value of winning a football game makes their plight any easier. Look upon his like no more, this man, ultimately fraught with foibles as any of us are, not a god in any sense. Look upon him no more, but cast your eyes upon the withered and destitute, and ask yourself if rooting for your team ever did them any good.

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