In my house, there isn’t a room that doesn’t bear at least some evidence of my relationship with Penn State. Since the child sex assault scandal began unfolding last year, only one piece of my Penn State collection went into the trash can.
It was a dark-blue T-shirt, with a sketch of Joe Paterno’s face and the words “LET GO AND LET JOE” in white, a play on the old saw about turning your troubles over to the Lord, trusting he’ll handle everything.
In hindsight, I see how deeply bizarre that sounds, and how perfectly it sums up how and why we got here. The shirt (bought at Cheesesteak Tees, I think) just seemed funny, so ironically over-the-top that only another Penn Stater would understand. It went into the garbage when the thought of wearing it left me feeling disgusted and ashamed, and afraid of what else we didn’t know.
With the Freeh Report released, we know more than ever and it’s nothing short of horrifying. The report isn’t just a retelling of how there were “more red flags than we could count,” as Freeh said, nor is it about pinning it all on the dead guy as others insist (they’re wrong).
It confirms things we didn’t want to accept about all of the men running the university, including the one to whom they all deferred. It proves that “let go and let Joe” was the guiding principle at Penn State. It wasn’t the law and certainly not compassion for those boys.
Those boys. Some the same age my son was when we took him to his first game, dressed him in PSU gear and waved to President Spanier as he passed by in a minibus on the way back from Beaver Stadium. Nobody cared enough to do anything for those boys.
Let go and let Joe.
Everyone knows Joe had an effect on people — it is accurate to describe as religious. A few words from him could revive exhausted THON dancers and shake loose money from donors’ pockets. His words certainly could have stopped Jerry Sandusky from abusing kids.
Imagine the honor that would have come with the success of Joe being the coach who took a public stand for protecting children, the one who refused to tolerate the mere idea of a child abuser in his midst? But even the janitors at the bottom of the blue-and-white food chain knew no good would come of blowing the whistle. Blowing the whistle is the coach’s job.
To the Paterno family, which released its own statement, no sane adult would knowingly cover for a child sex predator. They say if Joe had “understood what Sandusky was,” he would have done more. No one really expects the Paternos to reject their patriarch. But.
Realizing all this hurts. It makes me nauseated, it makes me ashamed I was part of that culture of unquestioning loyalty that let atrocities go on right under JoePa’s famous nose.
Does understanding all these things mean I don’t love Penn State, that I should take my diploma off the wall and send it back? No, it means I believe a better Penn State exists. That there is more good to be done. That I want to do better by its students than was done for those other boys, the ones Sandusky and his enablers destroyed.
A moment keeps coming back to me: Oct. 29, 2011, the weekend of that freaky Halloween snowstorm, when we joined a bunch of Penn State friends to watch the Illinois game. The group of us that had bonded over long nights in the Collegian newsroom gathered in a New Jersey living room to watch on TV, cheering and pointing out Joe to the kids.
Should we have known that would be the last time a big win would give us that kind of pride? That it would be the last time, probably for a long time, that Beaver Stadium would be that innocent universe of joy it became in the moments just after a win?
I’m involved in alumni groups, I mentor students, I give money and time back to my school. None of that changes for me. Some are calling for the football program to be shut down, if not the whole university. Penalties, charges, fines, yes, but dismantle Penn State? Of course not.
Letting the entire institution be defined by one person is our yesterday. I’d rather work to build Penn State’s future. Or maybe, just go back to the start. From the 1941 campus guide for freshmen, via Papergreat:
There is something in Penn State that goes on and on, unchanging even while buildings, faculties, and student bodies come and go. If you find out what that is, you will have found the source of the notable Penn State spirit and loyalty.
Read more ruminations, essays and publications from Northwest Philly reporter Amy Z. Quinn on her blog Citizen Mom.