Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. (AP Photo/Daniel Shanken)
Meet John Matko. John Matko is a 34-year-old Penn State class of 2000 alumnus, distraught by the recent revelations that Coach Joe Paterno and those in charge at his alma mater allegedly shielded a serial child rapist, assistant Jerry Sandusky. He was livid that students chose to riot on campus this week in defense of their legendary coach. He was disgusted that the Board of Trustees decided to go ahead as planned with Saturday’s Nebraska game just days after the revelations became public. John Matko felt angry and was compelled to act. He stood outside Saturday’s Penn State–Nebraska game in Happy Valley and held up two signs. One read, “Put abused kids first.” The other said, “Don’t be fooled, they all knew. Tom Bradley, everyone must go.” (Tom Bradley is the interim head coach.)
The response to Matko gives lie to the media portrayal of last Saturday’s game. We were told the atmosphere was “somber”, “sad” and “heart-rending”, as “the focus returned to the children.” The crowd was swathed in blue, because, we were told, that is the color of child abuse awareness (also the Penn State colors). The team linked arms emerging from the tunnel. They dropped to a knee with their Nebraska opponents at midfield before the game. Once again, broadcasters told us, “the players were paying tribute to the victims of child abuse.” We were told all of this, and I wish to God it was true.
I don’t doubt the emotions in Happy Valley are genuine. I don’t doubt the searing shock and pain that must be coursing through campus. But this is the pain of self-pity not reflection. It’s the pain of the exposed not the penitent. Let’s go back to John Matko. Matko stood with his signs behind a pair of sunglasses. He wasn’t soapboxing, or preaching: just bearing silent witness. It was an admirable act, but no one bought him a beer. Instead, beer was poured on his head. His midsection was slapped with an open hand. Expletives were rained upon him. His signs were also kicked to the ground and stomped.
As the Washington Times wrote, “Abuse flew at Matko from young and old, students and alumni, men and women. No one intervened. No one spoke out against the abuse.”
One disapproving student said, “Not now, man. This is about the football players.”
And with those nine words, we see the truth about Saturday’s enterprise. It was about the football program, not the children. It was morbid theater where people were mourning the death of a jock culture that somewhere along the line, mutated into malignancy. It’s a malignancy that deprioritized rape victims in the name of big-time football.
The signs of this malignancy did not emerge overnight. Looking backward, there are moments that speak of the scandals to come. In 2003, less than one year after Paterno was told that Sandusky was raping children, he allowed a player accused of rape to suit up and play in a bowl game. Widespread criticism of this move was ignored. In 2006, Penn State’s Orange Bowl opponent Florida State, sent home linebacker A.J. Nicholson, after accusations of sexual assault. Paterno’s response, in light of recent events, is jaw-dropping. He said, “There’s so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Geez. I hope—thank God they don’t knock on my door because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms.” Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of Pennsylvania’s National Organization for Women in Pennsylvania, was not amused. With chilling unintentional prescience, Tosti-Vasey responded, “Allegations of sexual assault should never be taken lightly. Making light of sexual assault sends the message that rape is something to be expected and accepted.” They called for Paterno’s resignation and short of that, asked to dialogue with Paterno and the team. Neither Paterno nor anyone in the power at Penn State accepted the invitation.
This is the world Joe Pa made. It’s a world where libraries, buildings and statues bear his name. It’s a world where the school endowment now stands at over $1 billion dollars. It’s a company town where moral posturing acted as a substitute for actual morality. In such an atmosphere, seeing the players and fans gather to bow their heads and mourn Saturday wasn’t “touching” or “somber” or anything of the sort. It was just sad. It was sad because they still don’t get it.
One PSU student, named Emily wrote the following to si.com’s Peter King,
Truth is, if not for Paterno’s philanthropy and moral code (until his fatal lapse of judgment), I and thousands of others wouldn’t be here right now. If not for Paterno…Pennsylvania State might still be an agriculture school and State College might be lucky if there were a Wal-Mart within a 30-mile radius. Paterno made a huge mistake, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good man.
Bullshit. Emily’s words ring as false as the apologists for the Vatican, Wall Street, the military command at Abu Ghraib and any industry deemed “too big to fail.” The same moral code that Emily praises absolutely cannot be the same moral code that covers up child rape. To do so is to make the very notion of morality meaningless. Emily’s gratitiude that her school isn’t “30 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart” can’t justify defending Paterno. To do so, makes you complicit in the crimes and the cover-up. It also ensures that such a thing could happen again.
On Saturday, while Matko endured the physical and verbal rage of the PSU faithful, hundreds gathered around the Paterno statue outside the stadium, laying down flowers and gifts. The pain might run deeply in Happy Valley, but the cancer runs deeper. To really move forward, the malignancy must be removed. Fire everyone. Shut down Happy Valley football for a year. Rebuild a healthier culture. Do whatever you have to do to make sure that the world Joe Paterno made has seen its last day.