Whose Tragedy #PennState Is

What is happening at Penn State is not a tragedy for Penn State.

It’s not a tragedy for Joe Paterno, or Graham Spanier, or any one of a thousand students whose school just became a national punch line.

It’s not a tragedy for alumni who will have to answer questions for a week or two from prurient and stupid work colleagues.

It’s not a tragedy for football fans, or for student athletes.

This is a tragedy for the children raped by Jerry Sandusky, and that is IT.

I am just about done hearing everybody describe this as a terrible situation for all those involved. It’s actually not a terrible situation for all those involved. It’s a difficult situation for just about everybody who will maybe do some interviews, write a book, and otherwise not miss a meal or have any problems beyond a couple of seriously awkward Thanksgivings. This includes Joe Paterno, who by the most charitable description of his conduct was deliberately oblivious to a very sick man in his employ. This includes Graham Spanier, who actually comes off looking the worst in all this, as the guy who said, “Look, an adequate response here is that we just ask him not to bring his victims around here anymore.”

I am just about done with pontificating about what this all means for the future of the football program and what it means for college athletics and what it says about our culture and blah blah blah, because none of those consequences are actual, you know, things. Joe Paterno’s “legacy” will be tarnished as a result of this.. Penn State’s legacy will be tarnished. Let me ask you this: SO WHAT? Tell me in actual terms what that might mean. No applause at the alumni dinners? Maybe donations take a little bit of a dip for ten minutes? Paterno and Spanier don’t get invited to the swank parties anymore?

None of that can even compare to the damage done to those Sandusky harmed and others failed to protect. What has happened to Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, and Penn State is an inconvenience. What has happened to Sandusky’s victims is a tragedy. Paterno and Spanier may be publicly embarrassed, footnoted in Wikipedia, and looked at sideways for a while. Sandusky’s victims will carry this forever, and there will be no sympathetic retrospective for them in 10 years, in which they can thoughtfully reflect on how hard it all was but how it brought them closer to Jesus or whatever it is these people will say.

I used to cover stories like this, back when the priest abuse scandal broke. I covered a trial in which victim after victim testified to the harm done to them, to the lives they had after being used so cruelly by someone they trusted. I sat next to a father as he wept outside the courthouse, because he had encouraged his children to spend time with the man who ruined them. It saved some of them, coming forward. It ruined others. A few years later one of those same victims was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography. This ruins everything, stains everything forward. Very little that can be done in the way of firings, resignations, or public humiliation can even come close.


14 thoughts on “Whose Tragedy #PennState Is

  1. + 1 trillion for that, Athenae.
    I’m a huge sports fan, but ever since ca. the mid-70’s when the behind-the-scenes stuff became more widely known, I’ve increasingly had to avoid the sports page in the paper because “Joe Smith pitched a great game” has been far surpassed by Athletes/Adminstrators Behaving Badly” stuff.

  2. I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think calling it a tragedy as in a ‘Greek Tragedy’ is out of line. Paterno’s downfall at his own ‘hands’ through a tragic flaw or mistake is very much in line with classic Greek Tragedy.

  3. You need to send this to the Penn State student newspaper… the students apparently aren’t thinking about the victims, just winning football.

  4. hausfrau, the Penn State student newspaper has been doing outstanding journalism, and most of the letters to the editor have called for Spanier’s and Paterno’s resignations.
    A bunch of drunk football fan assholes is not the entire student body.

  5. I was appalled at the news reports of students standing outside Paterno’s home to “support” him. Glad it was only drunk football fans.
    However, we need to “nut up” in this country. Either hold everyone who breaks these laws accountable or repeal the damned laws. Don’t put Billy Bob Jones in jail for trying to cop a feel of the next door neighbor’s kid if you aren’t going to put the Mr. Big Shot in the cell right next to him.

  6. Erm…just a small quibble. Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty. Sure, you might believe he’s guilty, but he has not been found guilty or plead yet.

  7. “It’s not a tragedy for football fans, or for student athletes.”
    I actually disagree a bit with this, in the sense that the priest-abuse scandals have been a tragedy for Catholics: a lot of people trusted and admired Paterno (and the generally well-regarded Penn State program), and believed him to be a good leader and shaper of young men.
    It’s a lot like the priest-abuse scandal in that sense, in that it’s revealed the problems with a militaristically hierarchical, closed organization. I tend to be wary of anything like that for a lot of reasons, but many people put their trust in Paterno. Not to mention the just-fired school president, of all things a “professor of human development and family studies, of sociology, of demography, and of family and community medicine.” It doesn’t remotely compare to the tragedy of child abuse, but they wrecked a lot of trust in an institution lots of people were devoted to.

  8. Jerry Sandusky was not in Joe’s “employ” when he committed most of these crimes. In fact Jerry Sandusky was forced to resign very shortly after he was accused back in 1998 and the DA at the time did not find enough evidence to bring charges. Joe made him retire anyway. The university gave him the emirtus status with access to the university’s facilities not Joe.

  9. I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think calling it a tragedy as in a ‘Greek Tragedy’ is out of line. Paterno’s downfall at his own ‘hands’ through a tragic flaw or mistake is very much in line with classic Greek Tragedy.
    Not really. Greek tragedy focuses squarely on the “tragic hero” taking responsibility for what happened, because he/sheis responsible.
    Paterno is not responsible for Sandusky raping young boys. He’s responsible for not stopping it as soon as he heard about it, for not calling the police and making sure it didn’t happen again, at least not in his locker room, not by the man who ran a charity for young boys. Nor has Paterno, as Athenae pointed out, suffered a reversal of either fate or fortune, as required by Greek tragedy. He gets to keep his money, his retirement comes a game or two sooner than he wanted it to, and people are already cheering him and demanding he be respected for his “legacy,” not for his see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil failure to take responsibility.
    This isn’t a tragedy. It’s a horror story for the victims. It’s a lesson in the perils of power and prestige and making things more important than human beings. A lesson most people don’t want to learn, especially the students of Penn State.

  10. “Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty.”
    If I’m sitting on the jury in his trial, I’m obliged to give him the benefit of “innocent until proven guilty”. If I’m not on the jury, I can think any damn thing I want about him.

  11. Rmj –
    I’m pretty sure “the curtain” hasn’t yet fallen on what reversals of fate or fortune might yet befall Paterno. Denouement still to come.

  12. What Paterno is guilty of is not living up to his own moral code. He showed a remarkable disinterest in following up on his initial report.
    This is also a rare child rape case where there is an eyeball witness who saw Sandusky in action. That’s why I think he’s guiltier than hell.

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