The Verdict on Penn State

I must admit, I expected that the N.C.A.A. would give Penn State’s football program the “death penalty” and thus completely shut it down. While that was not the verdict, the punishment they meted out–the $60 million fine, the four-year bowl ban, the initial scholarships being reduced from 25-15 per year for four years, the vacating of wins from 1998-2011–was fitting given what N.C.A.A. President Mark Emmert claimed as the University’s goal of changing the “athletic culture.” It takes time to enact cultural change, but when the presence of the past remains a part of daily experience it would appear to have some urgency. Such was the rationale for keeping the markers of Jim Crow etched in stone above the “Colored” entrance to the Macon Terminal Station in Macon, Georgia.

As the entrance looks today.
The above images may be found in context by following this link.

This entrance not only stands as a reminder of an ugly past, but it requires a contemporary, present consideration for responding: Who enters through these doors now? How should you respond to this designation today? On what side of history do we place people who continuously complied with this instruction in the past? What do we make of those who stood on the wrong side of history?

Hazel Bryan was forced to answer questions like these after Arkansas Democrat photographer, Will Counts, caught her on film hurling hate speech at Elizabeth Eckford on September 4, 1957. This photographic relic makes the past here so obviously inescapable. I feel great empathy for Elizabeth Eckford because of the loneliness and fear she must have felt. At the same time, I don’t feel superior to Hazel Bryan. I see the ways in which I could have been her–not in hurling racial epithets but certainly in having done ugly things. Fortunately, my moments weren’t caught on film. I remember them, vividly, and they make me cautious about demanding full notice of my spotless, unsoiled character in any given moment.

I remember being in the first-grade with a girl who had a terrible skin condition. Her skin always looked raw and blistery as if she had been recovering from head-t0-toe burns. Her body also had a very distinctive smell. I always assumed that it was her skin condition that caused her body to emit a scent  that reminded me of rotting strawberries. She was not a popular child and was endlessly picked-on. Well one day, she broke. She started sobbing in the middle of class. Sr. Pamela took her into the hall and after that it got scary for all of us. Sr. Pamela came back into that classroom angry. She told us that our classmate was crying because she had been teased. Sr. Pamela told us that she could not believe that students would be so cruel as to tease Bashira for something that she could not help. Sr. Pamela told us that she would ask Bashira to name the people who had teased her and then she would call us out into the hallway, one by one, to apologize to Bashira for our cruelty. And so it began.

Sr. Pamela would crack the door to the classroom open and you could see Bashira standing next to her. Bashira would whisper a name in Sr. Pamela’s ear and then Sr. Pamela would point to a child seated at a desk. The subject of her ice cold stare and crooked finger would usually point to themselves as if to say, “who me?” and Sr. Pamela would silently demand that that child come into the hallway. Once they reached her, the door would close. The ritual repeated for what seemed like hours until there were only two of us left, me and my best friend Jennifer. I remember being terrified of having Sr. Pamela crook her finger and beckon me to her. I couldn’t imagine facing the shame of having to face what I had done. I only had to imagine it, however, because the ritual finally ended with Jennifer and I. We had not been named. I couldn’t believe that I had not been called. I could believe that Jennifer had not been involved in the teasing but I really could not believe that about myself; not about my six-year-old self. Kindness, especially the courage to be kind, was something I remember having to learn and I remember the Bashira Moment as being just the kind of event that provided me with an education. I was a kid who wanted to be liked and I remember feeling vulnerable and willing to go along with whatever scheme necessary to win friends. I don’t know why Bashira didn’t name me as one of her taunters. It may not have been the case that I teased her outright–I don’t remember doing that–but I’m sure I was a part of the crowd when they did; I had to be. My definition of innocence was far stricter than hers. I would have named me had I been Bashira. I would have named me as someone who supported that violence by not doing anything to stop it. I did not feel innocent–in fact, I still don’t–and even though Sr. Pamela didn’t punish me, I know I punished myself. I felt guilty and I went right along with my classmates in paying my penance to Bashira.

When I read the statement from the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club, I thought about Bashira and my experience of that moment. My own experience caused me to wonder why Tim Sweeney and Justin Kurpeikis as President and Vice President would feel it appropriate to claim their pride as members of their club at this moment. Why issue such a statement as it seems to go against the very noble goal of changing the “athletic culture” as it exists by declaring themselves already good enough for having done it the “right way?” A mark of their commitment to learning would best be expressed through humility, not pride. St. Augustine greatly informs my own thoughts on the matter when he cautions against pride in one’s intellectual achievements when in the Confessions he writes that he “only wanted to be a learned man, which could only mean [he] wanted to be better than [he] was.” At this hour, being a good student-athlete and standing united with the Penn State community would be best conveyed through a willingness to accept the N.C.A.A. sanctions and to become invested in ways to learn how to be better than you were.

I was also troubled to read the pledge from at least thirty Penn State players about their commitment to Penn State. It’s not troubling to me that these players would stay and play, what is troubling is their defiant attitude as expressed in Michael Mauti’s claim that “No sanction, no politician is ever going to to take away what we’ve got here.” Why are these players so committed to constructing themselves as besieged? Do they really feel attacked or is this like the awww man performance of players who appear to think they are required to appear disgruntled when a referee throws a flag? Why isn’t it possible that the sanctions are designed to assist in dismantling a faulty system and to aid in the redesign of a better one?

A better statement from these student-athletes would have been for them to simply show up, as Mauti claims they will, and just practice and play. As we know from the photograph of Hazel Bryan, as just one example, it is possible to end up on the wrong side of history. It seems to me that the more these young men issue statements, the more likely it will be that they find themselves there–and we’ll see it.

2 thoughts on “The Verdict on Penn State

  1. Let’s hope those athletes read your article. However, in this day and time you do not see a great deal of athletes in particular chosing the path of protest against an institution that was so obviously wrong. The one visual I do have is of Tommie Smith and fellow black American runner John Carlos who wore black gloves and raised their fists during the medal ceremony at the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968 to show their support for the civil rights movement that was going on at home in the US. Tommie who was the first athlete to run the 200 metres inside 20 seconds, could have ignored what was going on at home and enjoyed the attention of his win. But, instead, he chose to protest and stand up for what was right!

    1. Thanks so much your remarks. Your reference to Smith and Carlos is a very good one and I thank you so much for adding it to this discussion. It’s a reference that sets in relief the actions of those Penn State athletes as highly self-absorbed. Every aspect of the Smith and Carlos protest was designed to bring attention to an element of injustice within the U.S. According to Smith, the protest image that you describe was meant to signify the following: “The right glove that I wore on my right hand signified the power within black America. The left glove that my teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc with my right hand and his left hand also to signify black unity. The scarf that was worn around my neck signified blackness. John Carlos and me wore socks, black socks, without shoes, to also signify our poverty.”

      Those Penn State athletes would benefit from seeing themselves in terms of the larger issues involved in these horrible events. They seem to have lost sight of that. EMM

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