Paterno, Penn State, and Mass Communications


Rob wonders in the comments where to begin in considering the riotous reaction of Penn State students to the firing of football coach Joe Paterno. One can begin by hoping a day will come – tomorrow, forty years from tomorrow – when each student who protested the dismissal will grapple with at least embarrassment, if not shame. The embarrassment would arise from wrong action in ignorance – maybe the student did not really understand the nature of what had happened. The shame would come from basically getting it, and still thinking Penn State football and the aura of university legend more important. Truth be told, there will be those among the students who never feel either, and who will rationalize their protest all their lives. Of such acts – individual acts, mass action obscuring individual acts, but not negating them – are lives shaped and novelists provided human subject.

This is not to elevate unfairly the magnitude of the student protest above the actual moral crimes of the parties to the whole affair, of Sandusky, the child sexual abuser, and Mike McQueary who first witnessed an attack, and Paterno and the Penn State administrators and the district attorneys who took no action. But the question we ask about all of them is the same – how? How could they? How could they not?

There is a tendency at such times to declare modern life coarsened in some way. We know all the cultural developments of the past fifty years that lead to such thinking. And it’s hard, unless you’re coarsened yourself, or living life on the paper-thin cultural surface of TMZ and reality television families, to deny that the latest cheap public sexual display at a sporting event or awards ceremony, or cry for the death of the hypothetically medically uninsured at a – pause to consider, please – presidential candidates debate is not evidence of the proposition. Yet do we really believe that we, and the culture, were better when such of our nature was not mass communicated back to us, but hidden, instead, in the recesses of secrecy, social conformity, and personal fear? Do we think there was less child sexual abuse fifty or a hundred years ago, or less callous disregard protected by social convention? Surely, despite the revulsion we feel when we discover ourselves – humans – capable of such failing, we know that we are, as a society, more sensitive and responsive to the issue of every form of child abuse than we ever have been before. However, it is not just the sensitivity and the programmatic social response that have changed.

A foundation for that greater responsiveness to human transgression is mass communication, but mass communication also makes our transgressions more widely known. It magnifies it, too. There is the mass and there is the communication, and they both play a role. If a father sexually abuses his daughter on some remote homestead in the second half of the nineteenth century, it may never be known at all, and the life she lives in the aftermath, if she survives, and the person she becomes, may be a mystery to all who know her. Only she is forced to reflect on this horror life may hold, neither eased by human sympathy nor elevated by the terror and pity of public tragedy. Today it may well come to pass that everyone will know what happened.

Mass communication draws us irresistibly closer together through a form of moral gravity. For all the university programs in the subject, we have not begun to understand the far reaching implications on our lives and our societies. Libertarians in their own resistant response to the modern world, seek to live on a mental homestead, psychically disconnecting, Matrix-like, from all the virtual connectors that attach to them. The rest of us, forgetting, often, that it was not always like this in the mass good we can do, recoil when it is also increasingly communicated to us how bad we can be.

Then, too, always, there will be the individual life in communion with itself. There are many of them in this story, most importantly those of the children abused and left so unprotected. Because he is so famous, Paterno receives the attention. Apparently, for most of his life, he has been a good man who has done good to others. It has been a good and successful life. There has been the hint, though, over recent years, that in his inability to recognize his proper time as coach had passed, Paterno had succumbed to a flaw of unyielding pride and vanity, or the desperation that is their underside. The flaw – the grasping that corrupts – reached deeper than anyone suspected.

Herodotus quoted Solon of Athens, and the final lines of Oedipus Rex say much the same thing – it was a tragic, Greek understanding of our lives:

Call no man happy until he dies.


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3 thoughts on “Paterno, Penn State, and Mass Communications

  1. Thanks, Jay. Another very astute, spot-on piece that digs deeper than anything I’ve read on the subject. You bring such insight and perspective into these subjects it should be required reading. And this is a keeper on multiple levels, not only on Paterno and the students. GLAD I asked.

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