Monday, November 14, 2011

We Are and Always Will Be Penn State

(This column originally ran in the Nov. 11 edition of the Gettysburg Times)
I went to Penn State to become a sports writer. I left Penn State a complete person who had an affinity for writing about sports.

Growing up, there were two traditions in our house every fall weekend. On Saturdays, we watched Penn State football. On Sundays, we went to church. Perhaps each was an indoctrination to what I would hope to become.
I never really understood the myth behind Joe Paterno. For me, he was just a goofy caricature behind thick glasses and rolled up pant legs. I believed in him almost the way I believed in God; not because I wanted to, but because my parents told me it was the right thing to do. At 11, I wasn't sure I'd ever felt the hand of God, but I hoped it felt like the chill that ran down my neck when Ki-Jana Carter ran for a long touchdown. I went to Penn State because I wanted to feel that way every Saturday. That the school had a good journalism program was a secondary benefit.
However, when I began attending classes, I took an interest in religious studies, psychology and journalism. While studying Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Islamic religions, I noticed similar trends in all of them. The story was important only as a teaching tool. While traditions were meant to keep people mindful of their philosophic origins, fundamental extremism created more hatred between groups than peace amongst them.
The encoded messages within the texts were the important strands that connected the religions: be kind to others but do not let people take your kindness for weakness, stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves, moderation in all things, remove emotion from experience when making important decisions. 
During my time at Penn State, I stopped believing in the football program and started believing in the community. There was a special unity in major celebrations like THON, but pep rallies, parties and the first warm day of spring also made us feel alive. State College is a city built for hopeful, excited youthful minds to meet and discuss ideas. I truly believe that was JoePa's vision of The Grand Experiment.
However, working at the school newspaper, The Daily Collegian, the university administration was swift to deny information that could make it look vulnerable to mistakes. The football team, while still mostly representative of the strong culture at Penn State, also seemed more corruptible than anything on campus. One of my favorite Daily Collegian alumni, Chris Korman, wrote a fantastic blog entry for The Baltimore Sun entitled "The Toy Department: How we got here," that details it far better than I ever could.
We want to believe that glorious men with bold visions can do no wrong. As we grow older, we're encouraged to fortify our moral code and our ethics. However, our intrinsic vision is not a simple spinal column, but an extravagant display -- an entire nervous system. When it's running perfectly, it has massive potential. Sometimes we encounter an idea that spreads like a disease, or even worse, a cancer. It's our duty to protect our own intellectual health, but we depend on others to help keep it in check.
When we look at our leaders and our communities, we forget that they have this same potential for dysfunction.
Obviously we could never have dreamed a horrible scandal like the one that's now claimed our president and head coach would swallow the school. The truth is, we should have seen the potential. We propped up Paterno and the football team without enforcing the same discipline he expected from us. As outside observers, we could see that he was falling behind his own intellectual vision, yet refused to keep him in check.
In 2003, wide receiver Tony Johnson was pulled over for a DUI, blowing a .136 after crossing over the median twice. Paterno said he was a good kid who made a mistake and didn't need to be punished. In 2006, when referring to Florida State's A.J. Nicholson's sexual assault case, he opined, "He may not have even known what he was getting into. … A cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Thank God they don't knock on my door. I'd refer them to a couple of other rooms."
These are just two of several examples. Forty years ago, Joe could have gotten away with saying either one of those things. In the modern era, he was shouted down. Johnson served a two-game suspension after the university decided to redirect. Many supporters respected Paterno less after the Nicholson comment.
The point is not that Joe didn't know right from wrong; it's that the lines of modern morality -- which remain fluid -- shifted beyond his comprehension. It should have been clear, even then, that he was no longer fit of mind to coach 18-to-22 year olds.
With our faith in Paterno so large, we missed the signs and did nothing to act. Ritual becomes dangerous when we forget why we practice it. The whole point of 'success with honor' was that discipline, work ethic and integrity could prevail. With athletics, if we're not careful, we forget that.
Paterno may not have been the conductor, but if he'd stayed true to himself, he'd have kept the program on the right path.
JoePa will always be more complex than the cardboard cutout a purist or cynic wants us to believe. He is more than just a man with 409 victories and a Grand Experiment. He's more than just a man who, through loyalty to his cause and possibly to his perverted friend, enabled a predator or at least endangered his innocent victims.
Evil prevails when good men fail to act. Joe Paterno was and is a good man. Evil prevailed.
There is potential for a great void where high moral authority used to stand at Penn State. Wednesday, we saw the misplaced anger of a small percentage of students rioting to try to fill it -- a literal rejection of the halo of silence that continues to irk us all as we search for answers. Though most students and alumni do not agree with the rioters' actions, we certainly understand their sentiment.
We should take our time to mourn, but we cannot wait long to take action.
We expected more from a leader, but we should also be aware that our leaders need a break. We should assist them – be their bridge as they enter the next chapter of their life. As we move forward, we must expect more from ourselves to make sure that bridge from one leader to the next is frictionless.
If WE ARE to be taken seriously as a school and as a community of Nittany Lions and Penn State pride, we must stand up for what the lively Paterno of old would have if he had been born into today's society.
My friend and fellow Nittany Lion, Pat Abdalla of the York Daily Record, suggested Penn State use the proceeds of this weekend's game toward an institute for abused children, taking the lead on education for preventing similar cases. Others have suggested a moment, quarter, half or even game of silence against Nebraska to show solidarity for the victims.
I've never been a man of grand gestures. Moments like this force me to look at myself and ask if I'm living up to my own moral code, one that not only I, but also my community can be proud of. Have I acted with discipline, or in my own self-interest with disregard for my community? Do I understand what makes my community proud? If not, how can I get back in touch?
We must not allow ourselves to become tools of those who wish to control us -- caricatures of a time that once was. We must strive for progress while maintaining moral discipline. Maybe after saying, "We are Penn State," this weekend we should follow with, "We can be more."
I forgive Paterno for losing sight of his values and failing to realize he needed a break. If he's true to his retirement speech, he will return a great hero, ready to improve the university and the world. He already has a great track record for it.
Thanks for the great coaching memories, JoePa. Hopefully you still have a few more lessons to teach.

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