Making Sense of Penn State

[part of this is reposted from my gender studies course blog]

I’m sure many of you have been following the Penn State case. For those of you who may have missed it, Jerry Sandusky, a defensive coach at Penn State, has been charged with with sexually abusing eight boys over the course of 15 years.The details of the case are horrifying, especially the story of Victim 2 in the Grand Jury documents, which is perhaps why it has been the most referenced. A graduate assistant caught Sandusky in the act with his victim. Why the graduate student didn’t report it to the police directly, I don’t know. Nor do I know why he didn’t do anything to stop Sandusky. The court documents don’t go into motive, but it sounds like the student was in shock, but I’m also unwilling to believe someone would witness this and do nothing. Other commentators aren’t so willing to doubt; Andrew Sullivan rounds them up here. I’m not sure what I would have done in the graduate student’s place, but I hope it would involve yelling and the police.

I don’t want to argue that football itself is bad–it isn’t. Nor does every university with a football team have a culture that breeds these kind of issues. (At least, I hope not.) I’m from Texas, so football as cultural experience ought to be ingrained in me, but it isn’t. Part of that comes from going to TAG for high school. We didn’t have a football team. And we were nerds. Football was a game, not a part of our high school lives. Choosing a small liberal arts college for undergrad further removed me from football and its culture. While the two universities I attended for graduate school had football teams, graduate school is a different cultural experience than undergrad. Football, again, wasn’t part of my experience. I’ve been to precisely two college football games in my life, both more for the experience and the people watching than for the game itself. I think what I’m trying to get at is I’m not quite sure I understand the role of the culture of college football on a university campus in this case. I just don’t have the cultural experience, which I think makes me a pretty poor commentator in some respects. Yet, as a gender studies scholar, I can’t just ignore this case just because I don’t understand parts of it. And, I’m pretty sure that the cultural of college football is front and center to understanding how Sandusky could do what he did, which means I need to understand its role in order to make sense of what’s going on at Penn State.

Last night, Joe Paterno, the head coach for Penn State’s football team, was fired. Rioting ensued. See here and here for details. There’s a lot of commentary out there on this issue, a lot of it vitriolic and hurtful. Andrew Sullivan, as per usual, is doing a good job of tracking commentary and responding to it himself. For myself, I think this long form journalism piece on college sports might be useful context for those of you interested in this story. There’s also a lengthy This American Life piece on life in State College, PA, where Penn State is located. It was done in 2009, after Penn State was named the #1 party school in the country. Perhaps these two pieces together might help provide critical context.

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2 thoughts on “Making Sense of Penn State

  1. As a lifelong college football fan and former equipment manager for a college football program, I can tell you that programs are run like the military. Any type of negative comments about the program or the people in it are not tolerated. Since the GA who saw the abuse is now an assistant coach at Penn State, I assume that after he reported the incident to Paterno, he refused to follow up and push the issue because he was looking out for his career and didn’t want the stigma of being a whistleblower. Paterno had known Sandusky for over 30 years, so maybe he didn’t want to push the issue in deference to his friend. Both of those men were wrong in their actions, but I can see how they came to the decisions they made. The DA who brought a case against Sandusky for the same thing in 1998 suddenly disappeared in 2004 and his famliy had him declared dead earlier this year. I don’t know if his disappearance has anything to do with the Sandusky charges, but it gives me a sense that there was a price to pay for crossing the Penn State football program. This whole thing stinks. The question nobody is asking is how many of the Board of Trustees knew about this and failed to take action? They fired the president of the university and the football coach, but they may be just as culpable in this whole mess.

    • I think you may be right. The article the Atlantic did on the NCAA highlights just how driven by money college football programs are. These are cash cows for a university, but it means that the players are put in a precarious position. They’re not paid but they are. They’re there to get an education but their job as a football player takes first priority. Apparently that precarious extends to graduate students as well. It also puts the power squarely in the hands of people interested in keeping the status quo. I’m pretty sure teaching at Penn State has become a surreal experience.

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