Joe Paterno and the Depravity of American Football Culture

If you had asked me to conjure up the most damning possible catastrophe for Penn State, and potentially for American sports culture writ large, I would have given you something much more tame than the monstrous child rape scandal that has already destroyed Coach Joe Paterno’s legacy. And this is only based on the Grand Jury’s initial findings — at least three additional investigations are now underway.

We all know that a disaster of this magnitude cannot be pinned to a few misguided administrative decisions. A president of 16 years does not resign over an innocuous error in judgment. Nor would an icon like Paterno, the university’s beloved figurehead of a half century, be summarily terminated over the phone if one or two reasonable mistakes were at issue.

Rather, all this indicates a deep moral corruption at the very heart of Penn State’s institutional culture. With the downfall of Paterno, in addition to the president, the athletic director, the finance director, and potentially the campus police — coupled with pathetic apologia I’m seeing from countless students — it’s painfully clear that a subtle but disturbing sort of depravity is woven into Penn State’s character.

But Paterno, regarded for decades as a pinnacle of sincerity, goodness, hard-work, and success, is an American symbol as much as he is a symbol of Penn State. Though his deification there was particularly grandiose and long-lasting, it’s incredibly common for football coaches to be revered as the “moral anchor” for an entire community. And when that anchor no longer moors its ship, the entire edifice comes crashing down.

Throughout the American heartland, “football as a way of life” isn’t some worn-out cliche. Countless eat and breathe their local high school team. Football programs are, for better or worse, reflections of small-town virtue. And the coach — almost always an older, white male — stands at the helm.

I remember playing football in elementary school. Middle-aged male coaches would bark orders at us fourth graders, often taking disciplinary measures into their own hands. Hit that other guy harder, do more pushups, go run another lap. Looking back, I realize it was a moral conditioning program as much as (if not more than) a sports program. These officious men terrified me, and I hated playing football because of them. Yet there was nothing I could do — I thought it was somehow my obligation to stay with it. So that I did.

Thankfully, my tennis coaches were always much nicer.

Now, I don’t want to make too much of my own personal experience, but I do think it offers a small glimpse into what I’m certain is a culture-wide problem: that when we imbue football coaches with the responsibility to uphold communal virtue, we neglect the dark realities of what this entails. Such programs are invariably predicated on some of our worst human impulses: authoritarianism, rigid hierarchy, hyper-masculinity, hero worship. They also stoke the wild tendencies of boys who are already throbbing with testosterone. This, of course, leads to misogyny and homophobia. Coaches must employ scare-tactics with their players. They establish a good-old-boys network amongst themselves, because any improprieties must be swept under the rug in deference to the Program. And the Program is unswervingly Good.

Then there’s the conflation of football-playing with good citizenship, the ridiculous spectacle of cheerleading, the diversion from academics — these are all essential components of a football program. As such, every entity proximate to the program sustains its corruption. Law enforcement, clergy, teachers. Because, yes — the Football program is Good.

Of course, we’re particularly shocked that child rape is what broke this particular dam. But if institutions rely on hyper-masculine and hyper-competitive men (in Penn State’s case, exclusively men) to police themselves for moral failings, they will eventually implode. Imagine what kind of responsibility Paterno & Co. must have felt to uphold virtue on behalf of an institution with hundreds of thousands of people. Aside from the football program’s massive profitability, it was the cultural glue that bound together Penn State.

By all accounts, Paterno has led a decent life. So he must’ve felt he was doing right by the university back in 2002, when he concluded that making as little fuss as possible over Sandusky was in everyone’s best interest. For Paterno, that most basic ethical judgment — that one should report anal rape of 10 year olds to authorities — somehow became obscured. It’s devastating that an otherwise good man could make such a morally grievous decision. But tellingly, some of history’s worst evils have been committed under a similar pretense.

Since the early 2000s, the extent of the Catholic Church’s worldwide child rape regime has gradually come to light. Eventually, it became untenable to argue that the abuse and subsequent coverups were simply aberrations. Corruption in the Church was revealed to be so pervasive, and so ingrained, that only a total reappraisal could suffice.

And so it will be with Penn State and football culture. This wasn’t just about a few “bad apples.” Look at the students and alumni still making excuses: “The truth is, you can’t understand. And you probably won’t ever,” one wrote. Booing and mocking fellow students who dare suggest that continuing to lionize Paterno is wrong. Editorializing that a football game should be played tomorrow afternoon, like nothing even happened.

Unfortunately, I would’ve been surprised if students hadn’t rioted the night Paterno was fired. That’s just what they do, and Paterno’s vaunted football program was a large reason why many of them decided to attend Penn State in the first place.

Time for another total reappraisal.

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