A Legacy Tarnished
Last night, after a week of horrifying revelations, Penn State’s Board of Trustees decided to show Joe Paterno the door (along with university president Graham Spanier). If you haven’t yet, you should read E.D. Kain’s post about this scandal over at his other home. It’s good, and it draws an interesting parallel between the Catholic Church and Penn State’s athletics department over these disturbingly-similar scandals.
A lot of words have been written about this, so I don’t want to rehash all that much. What I’d like to focus on is the part of E.D.’s post where he talks about these two institutions as institutions. What Penn State and the Church (and any number of other institutions) have in common is that they are explicitly trading on an image and your or our membership in or ownership of that image. Take my own alma mater, for example. When someone starts talking about what it means to be a Michigan Man, I tear up like an old RAF pilot remembering the Blitz. Every Saturday in the fall, more than 100,000 Penn State fans get together in the stadium and scream “We are… Penn State!” at the tops of their lungs.
I think it helps to understand these cover-ups against that backdrop. For Penn State, as for the Catholic Church, it can be difficult to imagine something more fatal to the institution than popping that bubble, exposing the mystique of the program for what it is: fantasy. And we saw a little of what that means last night, when students at Penn State apparently lost their minds and took to the streets, even going so far as tipping over a news van and kicking out the windows. For these kids, an attack against any arm of the athletic department is seen as an attack against them.
I don’t know what the solution is. Taking membership in these institutions with a grain of salt is obviously called for, but that’s pretty tough. Understanding that your membership means holding them to higher standards and calling them out for failing is probably an easier virtue to instill than skepticism. If Joe Paterno had paid a little more attention to the part of Penn State’s alma mater that says, “May no act of ours bring shame”, perhaps we would have been able to avoid some of this. Above all, as E.D. says, finding some way to enforce transparency is key.
In any case, I hope some of those kids who were out in the streets last night wake up this morning and think pretty seriously about the message they sent.