My present-day self is very glad she’s not the editor of The Daily Collegian these days. My 19-year-old self would probably be having a field day.
The Collegian is, as my first resume put it, “circulation 16,500, Penn State’s independent student newspaper.” The circulation figure may have changed, but I suspect the paper is still an enterprise run by hard-working, idealistic young people who spend as much time as they can in the Collegian office getting their first taste of what it means to be journalists. In my three years at the university, I majored in Collegian and earned a couple of degrees on the side. So have many fine journalists before me and since.
My relationship with Penn State is complicated. It wasn’t my first choice of college; it wasn’t even on my list. But that’s where I ended up, for a variety of reasons. My parents, who had never had a mortgage, saw no reason to borrow to send a girl to school when my two of my three brothers had done fine at state teachers’ colleges. They would not allow me to take out student loans, explaining that my husband would become responsible for repaying them. (Would that mythical man please identify himself? And maybe send a check?) One brother had wanted to study journalism at Penn State but didn’t get his wish; our cousin had gone there and loved it, as have his two children after him. Most important, Penn State had a powerhouse football team. To my father, whose formal education ended in the eighth grade, that made it a good school. In 1972 he was prouder that Woody Petchel — star tailback of the Pen Argyl Green Knights, the team of the hometown high school my father never attended – was going to Penn State on a football scholarship than he was of a daughter who walked away from high school graduation with a record number of awards.
So I was sent off to Penn State, and made the best of it. After the first year I paid minimal attention to academics; it’s hard to feel engaged in lecture courses with 400 students. But two Penn State experiences shaped my life: the journalism school’s study-abroad program in Manchester, England, and The Collegian, where I was editor-in-chief for 1974-75. Years later, for a Collegian alumni endorsement, I said: “The Collegian didn’t make me a better journalist. It made me a journalist, period.” I stand by that statement.
Football? I barely gave it a thought — no mean feat in State College, Pa. In my freshman year, my father bought me a season ticket to home games; I attended one and a half. As editor, I put sports on the front page only under duress, arguing that it didn’t belong there at a time in history when the Vietnam War was ending and Watergate was rocking the very foundations of the country. I must have been a terrible misfit in that culture.
Then why do I find myself so feeling terribly sad about the way Joe Paterno’s career has ended?
Reading about what Paterno’s former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, is accused of doing to children makes me sick to my stomach. The fact that adults in positions of power knew and did next to nothing is almost as bad. I try to imagine how it may have happened. I think of a graduate assistant, an ambitious young man on the lowest rung of the football hierarchy, happening upon a horrific scene and perhaps being too stunned to think straight. I see him reporting what he saw to Paterno, the head coach and a campus idol, trusting that the chain of command will do the right thing. I imagine Paterno reporting to university officials and then, thinking he had done his duty, returning to his high-profile, high-pressure world, not giving it another thought. But nothing I imagine can begin to excuse the negligence.
About 10 years ago, I was asked to write a chapter for “The Collegian Chronicles,” a history of Penn State as seen through the lens of The Collegian. As I paged through the volumes of bound editions sent to refresh my memory of my year as editor, what jumped out were two running scandals: the fall of President Richard Nixon and the impeachment of the United Student Government president, who was acquitted and remained in office. “Oh,” I concluded my chapter, “and I understand there was some football played that year.” (Memo to sports staff: My apologies. I’ve grown up. I now understand that what’s important to people is news, even if it seems frivolous to me. Maybe you feel the same way about Broadway musicals.)
Last week, in The New York Times, the veteran sports columnist George Vecsey wrote: “Fact is, we have not seen much evidence of the Joe Paterno we thought we knew: the Ivy Leaguer, the benefactor, the scholar, the man who took on President Richard M. Nixon back in 1973. Nixon, a football fan, stated in 1969 that the winner of the Texas-Arkansas game deserved to be voted national champion, which is how it happened, even though Penn State went undefeated, including a victory in the Orange Bowl. ‘I don’t understand how Richard Nixon could know so much about college football in 1969 and so little about Watergate in 1973,’ Paterno, a Republican, said in June 1973.”
The same might now be said of Paterno. How could he know so much about football and so little about what was going on in his locker rooms? He and Nixon appear to have a few things in common: willful blindness, cover-ups and now status as tragic figures, at least in the eyes of their supporters.
When it comes to the definition of “tragedy,” I’m a strict constructionist; it’s not a word to throw around, the way it so often is on television newscasts. Tragedy in the classical sense refers not to something bad that happens to people, like a natural disaster or a fatal car crash, but to a drama in which the protagonist, generally someone of nobility or high rank, is brought down by a flaw in his own character. Macbeth’s flaw is ambition; Hamlet’s, indecisiveness. King Lear’s are legion, among them pride, arrogance and an inability to face the fact that his time has passed. Lear’s mistake was in giving up his kingdom too soon; Paterno’s was giving up his too late.
What happened to those children was not a tragedy; it was a crime. The tragedy lay in how it was handled, or not.