Joe Paterno has been fired as football coach at Penn State. It happened at about 10 pm yesterday. News reports say he was notified of his dismissal by phone. The situation evokes grief over all that has been lost, astonishment over the absurd disproportionality of it all, and of course outrage over crimes reportedly committed and condoned. Meanwhile, as you’ll see below, there are serious questions about the context in which this has all occurred.
Paterno is the winningest coach in major college football history, and had been a shining fixture at Penn State since he began there as assistant coach in 1950, six years before I was born. Angry students rioted for hours.
I can’t ignore the football side of the story, which has been so great a part of Paterno’s life. Penn State’s team is on track to win the Big Ten Leaders Division. Michigan State, my alma mater, is in good position to win the Legends Division. The thought of my school playing for the Big Ten championship against a team in such deep turmoil ought to be encouraging, from a fan’s point of view. Penn State was looking pretty tough, up until this week. But if you’re not playing against Joe Paterno, you’re not playing against Penn State. From today’s perspective, if that championship game happens, it will be the emptiest, most meaningless contest in college football history.
But that’s only a game. It doesn’t begin to touch the depth of the tragedy.
Let’s get the obvious out on the table. What Jerry Sandusky allegedly did was wrong, horrible, and incalculably harmful to many. The university’s response appears to have been criminally lacking. If reports are true, the victims were harmed in ways most of us could never grasp—especially since such a powerful institution was (again, allegedly) backing the perpetrator. From what we’ve been told, Joe Paterno seems to have done what was required of him legally, but he fell far short of doing the right thing morally.
What strikes me about this whole sad mess is the disproportionality I see everywhere I look. College football is out of proportion; everyone knows that, including fans out of proportion like myself. Assuming the accounts are true as alleged, Paterno’s initial action and his follow-through were disproportionately weak. His bosses’ response to his report was nonexistent, as far as I know. Really, now, though: did Joe Paterno have a boss? When Tim Curley, Paterno’s last athletic director, was hired, did he sit Paterno down in his office and tell him, “Look, Joe, you’ve gotta understand one thing: you work for me now!”? No, Joe Paterno was (and remains) a legend. Legends don’t really have bosses. Legends are people out of proportion.
Paterno had handled his legendary status well. His reputation was beyond superb. He graduated more athletes than any other AP top 25 football coach. He gave millions of dollars away. He was known for the caring side of his character. Penn State loved him, other schools’ fans (like me) respected him mightily—and now he has taken a disproportionately tragic fall from that height.
The board’s dismissing such a man by phone seems terribly, carelessly out of proportion. Students’ rioting was horribly out of proportion.
I do not think it is out of proportion to discipline and/or prosecute those who are responsible for sex crimes.
There’s one question of proportionality I’m having trouble with, though. Penn State’s student newspaper added a sex columnist almost exactly a month before this scandal came to light. It may be the most disproportionately proportionate fact in the whole debacle. (That’s oxymoronic, I know, but maybe as you read on you’ll understand what I mean.) In her inaugural column on October 6, Kristina Helfer wrote this and more:
Often, sex is taboo. We can’t discuss what goes on behind the closed doors of the bedroom, or in my case, under a crabapple tree once.
At Penn State, it’s more than in the bedroom — it’s a lofted bed, a walk-in closet at a fraternity or the Nittany Lion Shrine.
It’s time to break society’s chains (or not), and look at sex from a different perspective. Losing control draws me toward all of this.
There is no better time to have a little fun and explore than in college. We have few responsibilities, and there will never be as many willing people around to experience the same things with.
Let’s get our minds — and … [deleted] … — moving, and really delve into what’s important.
Kristina Helfer is a junior majoring in English and Spanish. She is The Daily Collegian’s Thursday columnist for the Collegian’s sex column….
Believe it or not, I edited out more than one especially offensive portion from that set of quotations from her column, including an unsubtle reference to sexual thoughts about “cute kids.” I could not include the last line in particular, a carelessly composed sentence (as I take it to be) whose author certainly did not intend it to be interpreted literally. If she had, its implications could be criminal. Since I’m sure she did not mean it that way, I’m willing to regard it as merely horrendous. (The source is here. Click with caution.)
This came (I remind you) from a weekly columnist in the Penn State Daily Collegian. Hypocrisy is only considered a sin when it’s committed by conservatives.
Sexual sin is wrong. When it involves minors, it’s a crime, and it needs to be treated that way. An out-of-proportion culture struggles with knowing what to do about it, though; especially when that culture gives a platform to a woman who thinks college means “few responsibilities,” and that sex is “what’s important.”
“Losing control draws me toward all of this,” she wrote in October, oblivious to what that would soon mean to Penn State. “Breaking society’s chains” and losing control were what Sandusky did (if the crimes took place as alleged) while multiple victims never had any control to start with. Joe Paterno and his bosses took no control over the situation, we’re told. When the board finally did take control last night, students really lost control. Losing control drew Penn State toward all of this.
I have wept over this—without much control, I am unashamed to say.
God help Penn State. God help us all.
Also posted at Thinking Christian