The Tragedy of Penn State and the Dickishness of Olbermann
I went to Penn State from 2005 to 2009, so I had left before the Sandusky sex abuse scandal was a thing that most Penn Staters knew about. I was never that gung-ho about Penn State in comparison to most of my classmates, so when it came out that Joe Paterno had been negligent in reporting Sandusky to the police (and possibly complicit if not active in a cover-up), I was in favor of his firing.
This is not a common or popular opinion amongst alumni, but a mere 10 years earlier, I had been an unenthusiastic Catholic, and had seen the exact same scandal happen within my church. So I knew that any defense of those at fault was more about self-preservation than justice, and that this self-preservation instinct would ultimately backfire on the people who loved Penn State, just as it did with the Church. In both cases, it gave me an excuse to sever myself from a culture that I didn’t connect with in a particularly meaningful way. But I’m still sympathetic to my friends who have remained Catholics and/or Penn State fans. It’s tough to deal with fallen Gods.
Paterno, the Tragic Hero
I’m not being flip, by the way, by referring to Joe Paterno as a “fallen god.” Penn State culture is largely built around the football program, and it has all the trappings of a religion: chants, songs, rituals, myths, and a moral code. The moral code is especially prevalent in Penn State football, more than in other teams I’ve been a fan of: Penn State has always put an emphasis on the integrity of the brand, and Joe Paterno was the cornerstone of that ethos. He was one of the first college coaches to place an emphasis on the “student” of “student-athlete,” and he was known for being both generous to his community and for having a moral code. He was like an old, Italian, Omar Little.
Unfortunately, what was hidden behind the moral code, the integrity, and the generosity was an obsession with legacy. He liked being so well-respected and revered, so when a possible blemish to that legacy — the sexual abuse of children under his care by one of his coaches — came out, he didn’t do what he should have. His pride was his downfall.
Yeah. There’s nothing remotely religious about that story at all.
The story of the fallen god is a common one, but less told is what happens to the god’s worshippers after the fall. Penn State’s response feels pretty similar to the Catholic response: long-term denial, scapegoating of certain figures who “had it out” for Paterno, the “few bad apples” speeches, and a willful obliviousness to the systemic nature of the problem. There were even riots when Paterno got fired.
From the outside, this response looks delusional, but if you, like me, have a foot in and a foot out of the culture, you can see what it really is: a desperate scramble to salvage something that has become immensely important in your life. There’s a lack of self-awareness to the response, yes, but this reaction happens whenever a worldview collapses.
Keith Olbermann wins the righteousness Olympics
Keith Olbermann, as everyone knows, is a strident commentator who seems to enjoy feeling morally righteous. One of the easiest ways to feel morally righteous is to position yourself against the sexual abuse of children. No one’s going to fight you on that. But on Monday, when a Penn State alum Tweeted an article at Olberman, he responded thus:
The correct response to “We Are!” in PSU world is “Penn State!” and the students had just raised $13 million for cancer research — which is what the woman had been cheering. She was baiting Olbermann, who has gotten his righteousness jollies from Penn State in the past, and Olbermann made the mistake of not clicking on the link, or of just being a dick.
Olbermann said he was targeting Penn State students in general, not kids with cancer, but as the AV Club put it in their coverage, “let’s face it, if you have to clarify that you’re not insulting kids with cancer, the conversation’s gotten away from you.”
So yeah. Olbermann’s a dick. We knew that already.
Incidentally, though, THON is just as much a part of the Penn State culture that produced the football program. Like football, the culture around THON cannibalized the time and resources of other on-campus organizations. While at Penn State, I was the president of the campus’s chapter of Amnesty International, and there were many times that potential new members would skip our group because of a lack of involvement in THON. “Fighting cancer in children is a great cause,” I would tell them, “It’s just not particularly relevant to human rights. Unless you consider healthcare to be a human right, in which case we should be organizing politically to get the government to fund this research rather than doing it ourselves…” at which point the conversation usually ended.
Blaming the Culture
Student activism in any real sense was not encouraged under Graham Spanier (the President who would eventually be fired during the Sandusky scandal for his involvement in the cover-up). Spanier also liked to complain publicly about the lack of student activism, while simultaneously refusing to meet with student activists and, eventually, having them arrested. One of the ways of sucking energy away from groups that Spanier and the administration didn’t like was putting all of the emphasis on THON. And it’s really hard to argue against a cause that’s donating to child cancer research, even if it takes the form of a 48-hour pep rally that is mostly put together by the frats and sororities. So while Olbermann’s an asshole for painting the entire Penn State campus as Sandusky and Paterno apologists, he wouldn’t be totally wrong if he was seeing in THON some of the same culture that gave us Penn State football.
My guess is he was just being a dick, though.
The interesting thing is that if Olbermann wants to blame Penn State students and culture — as I believe he justifiably could — as providing an environment where Sandusky’s abuse and the subsequent cover-up could happen, then he would also have to place some of the blame on his network, ESPN, which has played no small role in making college football into such a massive money-making institution that, in the mind of people like Spanier and Paterno, would have been too big to fail. If you want to blame a culture, you have to blame the whole culture: the institutions that support it, the values it prioritizes, and the economy that guides it.
It’s important to point out that Penn State is hardly the only school with this culture. Any other school could have been unlucky enough to have a predatory pedophile on staff, and could have had the confluence of factors (a too-mighty football program, unscrupulous administrators, cowardly coaches) that led to Penn State’s downfall. I grew up in Ohio, and I know that Ohio State’s football culture is similarly fanatical. It could just as easily have happened somewhere else.
But it happened to Penn State, and the people who knew nothing about the scandal when the events that caused it were actually happening became the ones scrambling to pick up the pieces of their culture after the scandal had blown through.
Blaming a culture for a crime usually seems unfair — this is why people tend to put so much emphasis on personal responsibility — but cultures set the conditions for crimes. Jack the Ripper, for example, was ultimately the man who eviscerated London’s prostitutes in 1888, but he would not have gotten as far as he did if Victorian England hadn’t had such extreme poverty that the entire East End of London was basically a brothel where misogynistic exploitation and violence could thrive.
Similarly, a sporting culture that values profit and apolitical coverage above all else is going to eventually to brush pedophiles, abusive husbands, and serial cheaters under the rug. Penn State’s culture is America’s sporting culture, and if Keith Olbermann wants to condemn one, he has to condemn both, or else be a bit of a hypocrite.
And a dick. Did I mention he’s a dick?
The “Penn State Experience”
When my friends would come to visit me at Penn State, my roommate would always try and give them the “Penn State Experience.” This involved football, lots of drinking, lots of parties, cheap pizza, high-quality ice cream, and a tour of the beautiful campus. His tours were always suffused with pride: pride at belonging to such a fun, happy community, pride at going to a pretty great educational institution, and pride at being able to show it off to friends from outside.
The cracks were already there, just beneath the surface, so when the cracks finally turned into chasms, it was easy for chronic non-believers and pessimists such as myself to sigh knowingly and to move on. But for my roommates, for my friends, and for my classmates, the collapse of their King was incomprehensible.
We’re used to the story of fallen Gods. But we’re used to the story from a distance: we’re used to the collapsed pedestal of Ozymandias buried in sand centuries later. We can see the collapse through the perspective of the God as he falls, undone, off of his pedestal.
But we cannot imagine the view from among the adoring crowd as they watch, horrified, as their god falls. Penn State is more than its football. It’s more than the Sandusky scandal. But Penn State culture is too busy trying to recover from its collapse to fully appreciate the former, and obtuse outrage junkies like Olbermann are too busy shouting to acknowledge the latter.