The Danger of Joe Paterno's "Father-Figure" Mystique

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Nov. 10 2011 2:49 PM

The Danger of Joe Paterno's "Father-Figure" Mystique

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Students fill the streets after football head coach Joe Paterno was fired Wednesday by the Penn State Board of Trustees

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images.

Last night, thousands of ostensibly intelligent, college-educated students from Penn State rioted through their quiet town of State College, Penn. They flipped a news truck, attacked police with pepper spray and destroyed public property. They danced on cars, threw toilet paper into trees and forced shopkeepers to stand guard over their businesses. The students’ uncontrollable rage required a battalion of law-enforcement officers marching down the street in protective gear to contain.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

And why did they do this? The New York Times, which reported on these events, has our answer:

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Paul Howard, 24, an aerospace engineering student, jeered the police. “Of course we’re going to riot,” he said. “What do they expect when they tell us at 10 o’clock that they fired our football coach?”

All this mayhem, all this orgiastic violence, because an athletic coach lost his job.

Is it just me, or is this reaction as grossly inappropriate as it is terrifying? If anything, these students should have been holding a vigil for the victims of former Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky, the man indicted for molesting or raping at least eight young boys over 15 years under the tragically lenient eye of the university’s administration—these are the people who are truly worthy their righteous indignation. But instead, these perversely misguided kids are mad that their “JoePa,” their aged coach—whom they weirdly treat with paternal reverence—was punished for his part in letting the whole sordid mess go on. Do they not understand that when something this egregious happens, those in control, those playing the role of parent, must be held accountable?

But father-worship is a way of life on many sports-dominated college campuses. As Penn State alumna Maureen Seaberg pointed out in the Daily Beast this morning, the pull of the Saturday game and its associated cult of personality is practically irresistable: 

One could have lifted one’s feet off the ground amid the throngs of students heading to the game on a Saturday afternoon, and still arrived at the stadium—so complete and total was the weekly migration to Joe’s House.

That Seaberg’s description of the “complete and total” pilgrimage to worship at “Joe’s House” sounds so eerily similar to last night’s events should tell us something. These deified coaches, grandfatherly as they may seem, and these monolithic sports programs, to whatever extent that they may fund other parts of the university, wield too much influence over college life. In an institution that is meant to instill the liberal values of critical thinking and an egalitarian sense of equality in its students, having special dining rooms or living quarters for athletes, as Seaberg recalls, is a bad idea. Building monuments to a man whose job is, at the end of the day, to teach guys how to move a ball from one place to another, is similarly inappropriate. And, worst of all, allowing the idea that anyone is infallible—be it coach, professor or cleric—to fester and infect a student body to the point that they’d sooner disrupt public order than face the truth is downright toxic to the goals of the university.

Blind, herdlike dedication to a coach or team or school is pernicious. Not only does it encourage the kind of wild, unthinking behavior displayed in the riot, but it also fertilizes the lurid collusion and willful ignorance that facilitated these sex crimes in the first place. But what to do? As David Haugh asked in the Chicago Tribune: “When will [the students] realize, after the buzz wears off and sobering reality sinks in, that they were defending the right to cover up pedophilia?”

Only when they wrap their heads around the fact that good ol' JoePa, far from being above the fray, is subject to the same moral questions and requirements as the rest of us. A truly good father would have taught them that; this one, apparently, has not. 

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