Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State

The word “legacy” gets thrown around a lot when people are trying to justify something vile. When I was in college I went to a lecture by Charlene Teters, a tireless Native American artist and activist taking a stand against racist sports team mascots. After a screening of the documentary “In Whose Honor?” about the Fighting Illini and their (former!) mascot Chief Illiniwek, I remember her speaking quite a bit about how his continued existence was often supported by citing the legacy of the school, the legacy of the team, and the fond memories the legacy of the racist mascot stirred up in alumni with liquid assets. Legacy, here, was code for preservation despite offense.

Though I don’t generally like to compare the rotten apples of one tragic situation to the putrefying oranges of another, this use of the word “legacy” in response to the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State University child sexual abuse scandal tied the two situations together in my head. In 2005, the NCAA weighed the legacy of Chief Illiniwek against its overt racism and, despite an 80 year history at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, condemned its use by U of I teams. The University retired the symbol after the 2006-2007 basketball season. A legacy can be outweighed.

Imagine now that Chief Illiniwek was a real person and a University of Illinois graduate assistant walked in on him raping a child, who he came to know through a foundation for underprivileged youth. Imagine that assistant told the head coach—a really good head coach, who’d been there for a long time and known Chief Illiniwek for years—who told the athletic director, who told University of Illinois officials. None of them called the police. They dealt with the situation by asking Chief Illiniwek not to bring kids to the locker room any more.

And, when the story broke that Chief Illiniwek had raped not just this child but others, students screamed as loud as they could that their head coach should be allowed to keep his job because of his winning legacy.

Here, legacy is code for preservation despite degradation.

That is the argument the rioting students of State College made last night, violently. Joe Paterno won 409 games for Penn State so his unbelievable refusal to contact the police when told Jerry Sandusky had been witnessed raping a child should be forgiven. These students, some of them freshman who have been connected to the Penn State legacy for less than three months, have given Joe Paterno’s 409 winning games a weight greater than his complicity in the sexual abuse of at least one 10-year-old boy and systematic, pervasive, stomach-turning silence on the part of University officials at all ranks.

I can’t believe any of this even bears saying, but I’ve gotten a response from a Penn State girl supporting Joe Paterno on Twitter and, astoundingly, heartbreakingly, unbelievably, it seems the thought that we are all duty-bound by our humanity to protect children from harm is not universal. That something as trivial as college football can outweigh a child’s welfare is so sad I don’t have an adjective for it.

“Asked how she felt about Paterno being fired, Nicole Atlak, a freshman from Toms River, New Jersey, said: "Absolutely disgusted. From a student's perspective, it's like where do we go from here? We no longer have a president. We no longer have a 45-year legacy."
-The Christian Science Monitor

So, let’s just talk about legacy then. A legacy is anything passed down through time and motherfuckers, these kids who were abused are the legacy of years of oppression piled on rape culture piled on the privilege of a few to put their shit, however negligibly important, ahead of everything else. These kids were victimized by every fucking system designed to keep them safe. They were born difficult circumstances, found their way to a charitable organization for the underprivileged and, when they were preyed upon even there, found out that Penn State football fans are more important than the fact that they were raped. That’s the legacy you should be talking about, Nicole, and I hope every potential boss Googles you and you spend years justifying that quote. Poor kids get preyed on at Penn State and then ignored by University officials and, when caught, the student body is “absolutely disgusted.”

You’re right. “It’s like where do we go from here?”
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