Monday, November 14, 2011

New Occasions Teach New Duties: Joe Paterno's Choice Point

For a variety of reasons I don’t typically write a lot about national & international matters. Part of it is the adage to write what you know. It is difficult to be sure-footed about things you can see only from a distance. Also, there is no lack of folks ready to pontificate about the federal government, Pakistan, nuclear proliferation, global warming, Israel, etc. My rule is to think globally and historically, but to write/act locally.

But I do have a general inclination to fill in the gaps when important issues are not being acknowledged, where key aspects of a situation are muted or just dropped altogether from the story.

The Jerry Sandusky-Joe Paterno-Penn State outrage is one of them.

As usual in stories of serial abuse, money and power are factors.  In this case, the victims by definition had neither money nor power. It was their lack of family resources that profiled them for screening and assault by coach Sandusky through his Second Mile charity.

What permitted Sandusky to assault and abuse young boys for so long was the immense enabling machine that was Penn State Football, an institution unto itself that provided $50 million in profit to the University. Every year.

No wonder JoePa was next to godliness in Happy Valley. Remember Ohio State University president E Gordon Gee’s sad joke about hoping that OSU football coach Jim Tressel didn’t fire him? Tressel headed OSU football only about a decade. Paterno was at PSU for more than half a century.

Paterno had more power at Penn State than its president. No matter how little he knew, or when and how he learned it, Paterno was the guy who could have stopped the abuse as soon he found out. It was his duty, and one that he could not delegate. Titles aside, he ruled the roost.

In observing that Paterno was the ultimate guy who could not pass the buck, I mean neither to judge him nor to absolve all the others who had knowledge of the abuse and did not do enough to stop it. The conspiracy of silence and inaction that betrayed those innocent young men was widespread.

The tragedy evokes for me a poem I first learned when I was a prep school student, only a year or two older than some of Sandusky’s prey.

“The Present Crisis” was originally written by James Russell Lowell as an anti-slavery statement.[1] It was introduced to me in chapel service as a hymn, rendered in foreboding and dreadful tone. The stanzas I learned had by then been adapted for Protestant worship, and encapsulate the choice point that may come to define Paterno’s life:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

Paterno’s choice point came not when he reported the incident up the nominal chain of command, but at whatever moment he realized nothing was being done. As the ultimate Big Man on Campus, he had only to say a word, and justice could have been done. It appears that instead of a word, there was a wink and a nod toward presumed institutional interests — Penn State, the football program, and Joe Pa himself — and the choice went by.

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