Joe Paterno and the myth of the university

They rioted in the streets of State College, PA Wednesday night for reasons that are hard for a neutral observer to fathom. How could the love of one man go so deep that students would actually protest when he was fired for failing to report child rape to the police?

The situation at Penn State revealed many truths about the society at major universities. It took an extreme example, the failure to report the raping of children, to reveal what I’ve known to be true for a few years now.

The image and reputation of a major university is more important to the powers that be than anything else. It’s more important than research and it’s certainly more important than actually educating students.

The reason behind this is simple. Reputation is what gives a university its mystique and aura. Society likes to think of universities as a separate entity from the real world. We all love myths. They let us feel like there’s something out there bigger than ourselves. Reality is all about routine but universities are a place where supposedly anything is possible. The more mystique and aura a university has, the more the best and brightest will want to go there. This increases the likelihood of those best and brightest landing lucrative jobs down the line and donating large sums of money to their dear alma mater. Money leads to the ability to build bigger, more impressive buildings on campus, increasing prestige and attracting more talented people to the school.

And the circle continues indefinitely.

***

A strong reputation can be earned in two ways: through academics and through sports. Harvard, Yale, Princeton. These are terrific schools, no doubt. But their myth has grown to the point where they are revered in American society to a degree that is disproportional to their actual impact. A student willing to put in the effort could get just as good of an education at a wide range of universities. But somehow it’s The Ivy League that has the virtual reputational monopoly on educational superiority.

At all times, it’s the reputation that must be safe-guarded. To use a specific, incredibly mild and harmless example, take the school I went to: the Medill School at Northwestern. It’s been riding on its reputation since my mom attended back in the late sixties/early seventies. The classes are easy to pass without much effort and the instructors are generally fairly average. It has the reputation of being the hardest school at Northwestern. In reality, it’s the easiest. The best part about Medill is the quarter you leave campus and intern at a news station/paper/magazine. It taught me I wanted nothing to do with the world of news.

This program is called Journalism Residency. A friend of mine is on hers now and she texted me asking if she’d get in trouble for complaining publicly on Twitter that Medill offers absolutely nothing in the way of sports journalism education. Almost none of the JR sites are specific to sports and there are no classes to be found.

I was confused. Why would she get in trouble for voicing a complaint? Well it turns out that before she left on JR, she and everyone else had been told in no uncertain terms to “watch what they tweet” because the school didn’t want anything in the public sphere that would  make the Journalism Residency program look bad.

The program, while lacking sports specific sites, is actually quite good. Most students would tell you that is the case. Medill knows it’s good but is still incredibly paranoid about anything that might hurt its reputation in even the tiniest way.

***

Universities sell you on school pride the moment you set foot on campus. And students, due to the amount of money we’re paying to go there, buy in quite willingly. I know I did. The Penn State students turning the press conference announcing the firing of Joe Paterno into a madhouse and their subsequent rioting does not surprise me in the least. They’d been sufficiently brainwashed.

I use brainwash metaphorically, not literally. What separates college football games from any other event is the undying loyalty of the fan bases. Professional sports simply don’t compare. It can be the best thing in the world to share your passion with 100,000 other screaming fans on game day (in Northwestern’s case chop that down to around 20,000, but still). This can be the greatest thing in the world. But it leads to more myths, more undeserved reputations, that can be dangerous.

This brings us to Joe Paterno. Joe Paterno has a long track record of being a good man. But Joe Paterno fell victim to his own deification at Penn State. At some point in time, protecting his own unblemished reputation became more important than anything else. It then manifested itself in the worst way possible. Informed that his long-time friend and colleague was raping children, he passed on the information to his athletic director. Paterno wanted nothing to do with the situation. A man he’d trusted for years was a predator and Joe Pa did not take the information to the police. Of course, neither did his athletic director nor the school’s president.

Instead of caring about the predator’s victims, school officials cared more about the pristine image of Happy Valley. They tried to sweep child rape under the rug.

But the horrible reality of State College finally rose to the surface and now men who I believe are at their heart: good, are paying the price, as they should.

***

Universities obviously should try to build a strong reputation, but when reputation becomes more important than reality, that’s when you run into trouble. This obsession runs the gamut across the nation: from incredibly mild and frankly silly (the Medill JR example) to dark and disturbing (what happened at Penn State).

Myths can be fun as long as you maintain self-awareness. I have a passion for the Northwestern football myth. That myth is that our players are somehow special because they play for a school that actually cares how they do academically. In reality, our players are a mixed bag when it comes to intelligence and there have been plenty of football players from other schools who went on to have a lot of success in something other than sports. We just happen to produce fewer NFL players. This is fine with me and I enjoy using that myth as an argument in a debate with other B1G fans. I don’t take it seriously though.

But it’s clear Penn State students took the myth of Paterno very seriously. They have lost all self-awareness. The destruction of the Paterno myth has been too much for many to handle. Now they are rioting in Happy Valley.

Not because their former coach failed to report child rape to the police.

But because he was fired for it.

Penn State’s reputation will never be the same again.

Sadly that’s all those in power and those who are rioting really care about.

5 Responses to Joe Paterno and the myth of the university

  1. Gordon says:

    Aaron,

    Great article
    “” They have lost all self-awareness. The destruction of the Paterno myth has been too much for many to handle. Now they are rioting in Happy Valley.
    Not because their former coach failed to report child rape to the police.
    But because he was fired for it. “”

    this section explains it all…

  2. Amy says:

    Nice piece, Aaron. Love both the Medill and NU football examples…definitely feel the same way.

  3. Great article, Aaron. I’m a Penn State alum and I couldn’t have put this better myself. The groupthink mentality when it comes to football on the Penn State campus has always been a sore spot for me, and it has showed itself in the ugliest way possible these past few days. Thanks for writing this, I appreciate it.

  4. Fred says:

    Some things are more important than football. Some things cannot be swept under the rug. If Paterno and others at Penn State had dealt with the Sandusky affair in the right way, the harm to the university’s reputation would have been minimal. But, instead of just one bad apple (Sandusky), we have a conspiracy on the part of the top Penn State leadership to cover up a terrible crime and thereby let the crime and the harm to children be repeated. Thanks, Aaron, for putting this matter in perspective and for explaining what makes “those in power” and the students who support Paterno apparently so indifferent to the true victims here.

  5. Josh says:

    I also enjoyed this article, but I’d like to voice I side of this that no one is voicing…

    Did Joe Paterno make an awful mistake? Absolutely.

    Would many of us have made the same mistake? I think so…

    Keep in mind that JoePa obviously trusted Sandusky and cared about him, the way we all care for close friends and work associates. Without having compelling evidence that proved Sandusky’s guilt, it must have been hard for Paterno to ruin his friend’s life by making severe allegations to State College police.

    I know Joe Paterno made a mistake…I just ask that people try to empathize with the man and understand how difficult this must have been. It’s hard to accuse a close friend of something as heinous as child molestation without being certain.

    The true victims here are clearly the children (now adults) who were violated. But Joe Paterno’s tarnished legacy also deeply saddens me, because I believe this was a man who set out to positively impact the lives of student athletes.

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