14 July 2012

The Silent Stadium (Penn State part five)

Previous posts on Penn State: Cultures of ComplianceThe Teaching of Tribalism, Darkness at Noon (Saturday), The Realities of the Victims (Omelas). Please see Voices4Victims at Penn State for more information.

The Freeh Report on the child rape scandal and cover up at the Pennsylvania State University is a frightening glimpse into what can occur when an educational institution, from top to bottom, forgets what its purpose is.

Though the institution in question is one horrifically malignant example, that singularity should not make anyone, in any school, feel comfortable. One of the key things former FBI chief Louis Freeh's report does so well is to point out the very common mis-steps, many going back decades or even more than half a century, which led the Pennsylvania State University into this criminal place, and it is vital reading, because at so many levels of education - especially in the United States where being an educational institution conflates with so many other tangentially connected roles - the seeds of "the next Penn State" lie in fertile ground.

Case Hall at MSU houses both jocks and top students,
but that does not suggest that Michigan State students and programs
are treated equally.
As I read the report, I thought about my "own" Michigan State University. When I was an undergraduate student there in the 1970s a large field sat across the street from the "jock dorm" in which I lived. Actually, to MSU's credit, it was (and is) "half jock dorm" and half residential college for top achieving social science students, a fascinating mix. But then, that mix met every night in "the grill" on the third floor which connected the dorm's two wings, and flag football teams representing floors in all of the South Complex dorms (all of which housed varsity athletes) played each other on the broad green grass across the street in the fall, and floor basketball teams played each other in Jenison Fieldhouse (often on the same court used by Magic Johnson) in the winter.

Magic Johnson and the "Cannabis University [Fourth Floor of South Case Hall] Jointrollers"
both played on this court in the 1970s
Today, that broad green field is occupied by the "football building" - the Spartan equivalent of the infamous Lasch Building in State College, Pennsylvania - and vast, private-for-varsity-football, practice fields. The basketball teams play in the Breslin Center, where no intramural team would ever find welcome. And the third floor grill in Case Hall is now a private dining room for revenue sport athletes.

Splendid isolation from the campus and the norms of society:
The Lasch Building at Penn State (above)
The Skandalaris Football Building at Michigan State (below)

And I thought about a tiny Michigan high school I once coached soccer at. Tiny, the whole pre-K through grade 12 school district had fewer than 800 kids in one building, but football mattered in a huge way to the tiny city in which it sat. I had worked with kids who fought for boys and girls varsity soccer teams for years against, primarily, the football coach and his staff who thought that soccer would dilute his football pool of talent. (I continually pointed out that the football coach cut many potential players, and usually had a 14 boy team though only 12 would ever play most seasons.) When we finally got the teams, I reported to an Athletic Director who was the son of the football coach. Now, he was a really nice guy and a great physical education teacher, but... "Ira," he once told me, "you have no idea of what I go through at family dinners. We talk about you and your "fag" soccer players more than we talk about anything else."

And when the football team's star running back assaulted a teacher at a school-sponsored camp one summer, he was suspended for one game - that easy, non-conference opponent game which began the season.

Penn State Women's
Basketball Coach
Rene Portland sexually
harassed players for decades

without consequence
So, it isn't just Penn State, it isn't just NCAA Division 1, it isn't just big. The University of Montana football program tried to cover up gang rapes. The Baylor University basketball team tried to cover up murder. Penn State was just better at criminal behavior, or more successful, or both. They spent years covering up sexual harassment in their women's basketball program, and apparently much of this century covering up crimes committed by football players. The worst scandals, yes, but as I've said, the seeds of this lie everywhere.

What do we do now?

The only good thing I see which has come out of the Penn State crimes right now is the sudden commitment of Pennsylvania educators and politicians to the idea that "punishment doesn't work." I've seen that all over blogs in the past couple of days, and this is huge progress for a state last seen trying to charge an 11-year-old as an adult for murder. Pennsylvania has almost 500 people serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children, so it is fabulous to see that the Commonwealth will, apparently, revisit all of this, along with those in prison for drugs, and those currently on public sex offender lists.

I agree, punishment doesn't work, but required changes in behavior can work, and the Pennsylvania State University, the institution and community which together built the toxic culture Freeh's report speaks of, needs required changes in behavior. We know this not because a few morons gathered at the statue of child-rape-collaborator, but because, on the day after the Freeh Report's release, Penn State's one action was to announce that it would be spending money to renovate - yes - the Lasch Football Building. If anything says, "we don't get it," that bizarre news moment does.

Thankfully, European Football - the football with feet and no helmets - offers the answer. And we reach across the sea for new solutions when our issues overwhelm our old solutions.

Chilling: The Paterno statue right after Sanduskey's arrest.
Punishment doesn't work (please keep repeating that all you educators and politicians), and shutting down the Penn State football program for a year or two would punish current players and coaches, I am told, who were "uninvolved" (except for the few staff holdovers rarely mentioned). It might also punish other Big Ten football programs. OK, don't shut the program down. Yes, deprive it of post-season play opportunities. That's basic. Force it to contribute 100% of its Big Ten football revenues to non-Penn State related charities and research groups, that's vital. Do both for four years, enough to help break the cycle of football worship and profit across one "collegiate generation"... but then...

Do one more thing. End the football culture for four years. End it. When it returns, make sure it is part of the university, and that is is not the university.

UEFA, the European Football Association - and other global football associations worldwide - has the solution. When culture is the problem, culture is eliminated, and teams are required to play their home games in empty stadiums. This solution is used against clubs big and small, and it is effective. It targets - directly - the culture which lies at the heart of the problem.

in Kenya, a team endures the empty stadium
A Turkish team deals with the silence of fan misbehavior
Penn State should play its home games in an empty Beaver Stadium for the next four years. The games should not be on local television or on local cable systems or on the radio. ESPN3 and similar internet providers should block games from IP addresses in Pennsylvania. Those who "live and die" with Penn State football would have to find other things to do with their lives. The university would have to find other heroes. And, I suspect, all would gain dramatically from the experience.

Let the games go on, but let the culture die.

- Ira Socol

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