I can’t recall exactly when I started rooting for Penn State. I was very young and it was too long ago. Yet while I can’t remember when it started, I clearly remember why. My dad and I were watching a game together. It was the first game I can recall watching with him. Penn State was being soundly beaten, but he was still rooting for the team with the boring uniforms and nameless jerseys. Being young and wanting to feel good about the game, I asked him why he doesn’t root for the other team. They were clearly better and winning handily. In the minds of children, this is all that is needed to find a rooting interest. He told me that he roots for the losing team because of their coach. He said he was a good man and he was making sure his players went to class and graduated college. He said he was donating a lot of the money he made back to the school, so that the students could have nice things and improve their campus. I was too young to appreciate any of those things at the time. I just wanted to root for a winner. I didn’t like the feeling I got from watching my team get beat, and I was not finding any consolation in the accomplishments of the football program away from the football field. I asked my dad what the team’s name was. He said they were Penn State.
Penn State has been my favorite team since that day, and it became much easier to root for them over time as the victories have by far outpaced the losses. As I sit down now to watch college sports, I can’t help but factor my dad’s reasoning into my rooting interests. Ever since that first game, I always pull for the school that takes the student part of term ‘student-athlete’ more seriously. I scan recent memory for instances of recruiting violations and arrest reports. I think about coaches who jump ship for better positions leaving recruits behind to think about broken promises. Basically, I always look at the two schools taking the field and try to determine, who is doing a better job at making men out of these boys. It’s idealistic for sure, but it’s what I do. I want to see people who do things the right way have success.
I am glad that my dad isn’t around to see what’s happened at Penn State. I am glad he will not have the opportunity to read the Freeh report or to listen to the news and hear about the colossal failure of a man he admired. Yet, I realize that’s part of my symbolic obsession. Like I did all those years ago, I’d love to hide myself from the reality of what went on at Penn State. I’d like to turn on the television on a Saturday in the fall and watch football and never think about the Freeh report, or of children being harmed, or of the imperfection of admired men. Like I wanted to do all those years ago, I want to watch the game and have it make me feel good. I want to see the symbols and ignore the realities. I want to, but I can’t. I think about what my dad might have said to me if he were here. I think he would tell me to learn something from this. I think he would say to somehow become better because of it. I don’t think he would look for a way to escape it. He would deal with it, as painful as it would be to see his favorite coach exposed and redefined for a miserable failure of character.
It is probably because of the lesson that my dad taught me so long ago that I am wondering why it is that the discussion following the release of the Freeh report is so dominated by the debate about a statue of Joe Paterno on the Penn State campus. I am wondering about this symbol and the focus it is receiving above the multitude and gravity of realities that still await the same attention. I am wondering why our immediate focus always seems to be on the symbols around us and the feelings we wish them to evoke in us. I am curious if the removal of the statue would help those who support its demise to forget the tragic events that went on under Coach Paterno. I am wondering exactly how deep our symbolic obsession goes.
I’ve put myself in Joe Paterno’s shoes as much as I can possibly conceive of them. I have tried to imagine a graduate student walking into my office at the tail end of my storied career to deliver news of a crime that I can’t possibly fathom. I try to imagine what I would do. I think I would be shocked and at first I would try to protect myself through denial. I would press the young man on the details and his level of certainty in the hope that there was some way, any possible way that he could have been mistaken about what he saw. I think I would be shaken to my soul that someone I hired, trusted, and considered a friend could be capable of such a crime. I would think about the victim. I would think of all these things and then my thoughts would inevitably turn to myself. I would be tested by the selfishness that exists in all of us. I would think of the countless hours spent in building an iconic program and the many men who were made better by spending their time in it. I would think on the years of charitable work and millions given in support of the place that I love. I would be afraid. I would be afraid that a life well lived and an unblemished career could be erased by letting this atrocity come to light. Then I would need to make a decision. This is where my imagination fails. I am no man’s judge, and I can’t say that I would have done any better in that moment than Joe Paterno did. What I can say is that our general proclivity to avoid the realities of distasteful situations is reason to keep the statue where it stands. Our symbolic obsession is what inspired it. We had no question about its existence when the feelings we derived from it were positive. If our symbolic obsession is as deep as these discussions seem to indicate, than I support keeping the statue. Let it help us not to hide from the realities of this situation. Let it stand despite the fact that it might make us feel bad. Let it stand to help us to learn something from this. I would sooner support the demolition of the football stadium than the statue. It would be better if the statue pointed to pulverized rock and twisted metal. It would be better if it were the symbol of a great man trying to teach us the unpleasant reality of how easy it is to raze a legacy.