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On Penn State, Joe Paterno, and Our Culture of Shame

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Thoughts after the jump, with two warnings and a promise: there is a very, very sensitive issue at the heart of this and it's one that's likely to be upsetting to some. I understand how emotionally charged it is, and difficult it is to grasp, but I respectfully ask that you not make any jokes about it, period, in the comments. No amount of levity can make this situation laughable, and I will be vigilant in the comments to ensure that we treat this with the proper gravity.

Second, though this disclaimer is true of every post at Alligator Army: The views discussed under my name are mine alone, and may not be representative of my employers or the community as a whole.

The promise: We're discussing this here and here alone. I just sort of need to write all of this down, and this seems like as good a place as any to do it.

I think the most important reason Joe Paterno was fired Wednesday night because he didn't resign immediately on Wednesday morning. The inestimable Brian Floyd has a timeline of events from Wednesday at SB Nation, and includes this quote from Paterno:

That's why I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.

The easiest thing the Board of Trustees could have done? Accept Paterno's immediate resignation. Paterno attempting to dictate his own terms forced the Board to dictate them for him; Paterno using "should" to direct his superiors not to fire him while half the world pilloried him for doing what he had to do and stopping short of what he should have done is was probably a dark irony not lost on the Board. Paterno had a choice: He could leave or be forced to leave. He chose the latter.

I think the Board was right to fire Paterno, because keeping him in Penn State's employ was definitely not in the university's best interest. I understand the frustration some Penn State fans and students have with how it happened — over the phone, at night, in the middle of a media maelstrom — but I cannot fault the what of the Board's decision.

But firing Paterno and Graham Spanier is almost easy, at this point; it's getting rid of figureheads who looked the other way when there were reasons to believe some of the darkest evil a human can do to another was happening. The real task before Penn State is much more difficult than that, and may require many of the powers that be there and everywhere to look at how we handle alleged abuses of power. 

Consider, for a moment, how incredibly disappointing it is that Jerry Sandusky allegedly repeatedly and brazenly took advantage of, molested, and raped children — at one point, in the locker room at Penn State's football facilities — without even a soul speaking out about it.

Sandusky retired from Penn State in 1999, after an incident that led to him being investigated for sexual abuse in 1998. Here's an ugly dichotomy: Apparently, The Second Mile, the charity Sandusky apparently met many children through, knew about that 1998 investigation and did very little; the mother of the Victim 1 described in the grand jury report on Sandusky (PDF, with graphic details), called her son's school with an allegation of sexual abuse by Sandusky in 2006, and Steve Turchetta, an assistant principal and football coach at that school (he has now been elevated to athletic director), got Sandusky banned by that school district from that day forward.

It's hard and wrong to generalize and extrapolate from that, but it seems that The Second Mile, an organization dedicated to bettering the lives of children, allowed a predator to remain in their midst, while a school and a school district took the best step of anyone in this saga.

Why, though? Why does a school district, or a teacher, make that decision, while a graduate assistant makes the decision, after confronting his own father, to run a rape he allegedly witnessed up the flagpole, and a head coach decides to do the same, and no one decides it was important enough to tell people beyond the Penn State cocoon about it? Was there a fear that there would be retribution associated with accusing Sandusky of a crime? Was there a worry that telling police that a football coach was also a rapist would destroy what Paterno and others had built? Was there disbelief that a trusted friend could also be capable of monstrous evil?

Was there shame in having witnessed Sandusky rape a child?

The issue of how we view rape is very, very difficult to deal with, and one of the most important ones for people who work against what they (we, really, because I count myself in this group) call rape culture. Rape culture is an umbrella term for all the things that enable people to consider the willful violation of another person's sexual consent less than a gravely serious and violent crime, and usually focuses on how many aspects of culture can be used to normalize and trivialize sexual violence against women. But while that Wikipedia page mostly pertains to sexual violence against women, literally anyone can be raped by anyone, and a culture that does anything but react with horror to sexual abuse and support for those who are victimized by it can be damaging to its citizens.

If Mike McQueary was swayed by any part of that culture to do react as he did in the Penn State locker room that night, instead of attempting to stop a rape and a rapist by immediately calling police, I think McQueary's failing is greater than his own. Though, in a perfect world, no one should ever be raped, no one should ever have to see a rape occur, either, and McQueary was confronted with a rare situation he was probably unequipped to handle. And though I can't profess to know his mind, I do think he probably felt shame, and was shocked, by the situation, and left unable to act appropriately both by his education and acculturation to that point in his life.

And if there are more of us who are as unequipped as McQueary was (or who have to ask ourselves what we would do in that situation) than there are who can confidently say we would work to prevent sexual violence, there is a serious imbalance in the scales of shame here. There should be no more shame in being raped or sexually abused than being murdered, or otherwise being the victim of a crime, and no shame in witnessing it and trying to do something to stop it; there should be plenty of shame for those with the power to stop rape and sexual abuse who allow them to occur unchecked.

There's another quote from Joe Paterno that I think is important today. It's inscribed on a wall behind a statue on Penn State's campus.

There is a three-sided stone wall behind the statue. The left section of the wall reads, "Joseph Vincent Paterno: Educator, Coach, Humanitarian."

The middle section of the wall features four Nittany Lion football players following Paterno, who is depicted running onto the field with his right index finger extended. Also in the middle section of the wall is a quote from the legendary coach: "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."

Paterno helped many young men and women as the coach of Penn State's football team, and probably ultimately made Penn State a better place, through mentoring and coaching and successfully piloting a football program that made money hand over fist and allowed students to study in nice libraries. It's my hope that, as the former coach of Penn State, he will help many more young men and women see that the shame associated with sexual abuse must be reserved for those who do not diligently work to exterminate it.

And if he doesn't, we should remember that, too — and learn from it.

To learn about how you can help survivors of rape, abuse, incest, and neglect, visit Black Shoe Diaries' post on the Proud to Be a Penn Stater campaign. For more on the Sandusky investigation, read SB Nation's comprehensive StoryStream.