Before we judge Joe Paterno, Rick Morris writes, we need to look at ourselves.
I must express my disgust: Joe Paterno was told of a child being sexually assaulted, and did nothing other than mention it to his boss? “Hey Tim, working hard or hardly working? Yeah, great weekend, great weekend. Oh, by the way, totally not a big deal, but Jer raped a kid in the showers? Haha totally weird right? Anyway see ya later.” It’s appalling, foul, and reprehensible that anyone should allow someone to get away with a crime of that magnitude. It boggles the imagination that this sort of crime might just get an eye-roll and a quiet aside to the boss. I remain stupefied that, in the face of a (presumably distraught) witness reporting the rape of a child, Paterno did not (at the very least) call the police himself.
It seems almost certain to me that Paterno heard what happened, was overwhelmed by the sheer vileness of it, and tried to pass responsibility off to someone else to make it right. I think that, unless Paterno is truly an evil man himself, he accidentally looked evil in the eye and looked away in shock. In other words, Paterno was a coward. (Consider the word “coward,” in this piece, to stand in for “one who fails to do what is right out of fear.)
While the pitchforks are nice and sharp and the torches are nice and bright, perhaps we ought to pause the vituperation for a moment—just a moment, I promise—and take a look at ourselves. I think that some of us have probably failed in our own obligations to work against sexual violence in our communities. Joe Paterno failed in circumstances in which hopefully none of us would fail, and so we feel comfortable piling on in judgment. Harsh condemnation is well-deserved here. Perhaps we can use this incident for more than reassurance that our values remain intact, though.
While there will undoubtedly be calls for some sort of knee-jerk legislation (because that’s what Americans do when we’re upset), I wonder how many people leaping to condemnation have ever looked the other way or stayed quiet when they saw racism, sexism, or the other plagues of our society. I don’t wonder this because I think that I think Paterno is being judged too harshly. I wonder this because I think we should all wonder this from time to time, and now seems as good a time as any to reflect on how we ourselves have failed to protect the least of these.
I have enough confidence in the general goodness of my fellow men that I believe no one here would deliberately leave a child in the hands of a pedophile, or tolerate a friend’s sexual violence against a child. Enough men have written eloquently on here about their own experience of sexual abuse that I believe that we here universally detest such abuse in all its forms.
With shame, though, I will tell a story of my own failure. A man I did not know well was at a party hosted by men I did know well. Talking about a woman currently at the party, he mentioned that in the morning he’d tried to have sex with her and she’d said she didn’t want to. He had sex with her anyway, he said, concluding, “So, basically, it was rape.” He then laughed, and another man at the party literally high-fived him.
I stared. I knew I should say something. But to my great shame, I said nothing. I simply walked out of the room with a friend who was similarly disturbed by what he’d heard. Is it possible that this woman really didn’t experience this as rape, and that this guy (her boyfriend, to clarify) had simply read her correctly? I suppose. Is it possible that, no matter what I said, it would have changed nothing about this guy’s beliefs? I think his enduring misogyny is quite probable, and I suppose that this uncertainty of the correct course—combined with relative certainty that any words of mine would be ineffective in reforming his views of women—probably did nothing to spur me to action.
But it seems to me, now, as I squirm while writing this and hope against hope that my friends who read this will not think too much less of me, that saying something—anything—would have made it clear that I, at least, will not abide such behavior. It would have removed a safe space for such attitudes to go unchallenged. I failed.
Paterno’s behavior was reprehensible because it was so clear what he should have done: informed the police, encouraged the witness to do the same, then called the police. I have no doubt that I would have handled such a situation much more aggressively than Paterno did (because I have). But in the equally-important, banal sort of evil that I’ve just discussed, I had a much harder time trying to act. I don’t think fear would have stopped me had I been sure of the correct course, but fear (of what? I don’t know either) unmanned me to the point that I didn’t try hard enough to find that course quickly.
I think about this incident every single day, wishing I had done differently. I try now to confront every troubling attitude I see expressed—hoping, I suppose, that a chance at redemption will present itself. To everyone: I’m sorry.
The question I would ask, then, is this: have you ever failed to act? What would you have done differently, had you been in my shoes? I think these are things to think about, and I hope that by doing so we can prepare ourselves to act righteously in moments of doubt.
The GMP on Penn State:
Paterno and Pedestals, Julie Gillis
When the Game Becomes Religion, Gary Percesepe
Male Lust Arrives in Happy Valley, Tom Matlack
Destroying a Young Boy’s Soul, Ken Solin
Power Is at the Core of Sexual Harassment, Mervyn Kaufman
Men, Monsters, and the Media, Nicole Johnson
Loyalty and Responsibility at Penn State, Andrew Smiler
Jerry Sandusky and Penn State: A Familiar Story, Sophia Sadinsky
Sandusky-ed, Tim Green