joe paterno apologism 101

A handy flowchart, courtesy of Adulting.

The closer I get to the end of my first semester of grad school, the busier I become. It was going to take something pretty serious to get me to update this blog again any time soon, what with the numerous pages of written material I have to produce in the next month. So, congratulations, rioting Penn State students and Joe Paterno defenders. You win this round.

For as disturbing as it is for me to hear/read about the Penn State rape scandal (I think we can all agree that this is definitely not a “sex scandal”) as someone working in higher education, I can’t imagine how upsetting and distressing it would be to be affiliated with that institution in any capacity. It would be a difficult experience to negotiate, without question, but somehow I don’t think my distress would lead me to turn to defending any employees of Penn State’s football program–and I definitely wouldn’t be inspired to riot in the streets and overturn media vans on their behalf.

In fact, I think it’s more than appropriate to poke holes in the “logic” that has gotten people to this place and take apart some of the incoherent rape-apologizing arguments I’ve seen floating around the internet lately.


Argument #1: “Paterno didn’t do anything wrong.”

I have to give it up to people who are trying to excuse the actions of Paterno and other Penn State football employees from an ethical perspective. Really. It takes a very unique perspective to try to take a moral stand in favor of bystander apathy in a case in which children were raped. There are very few areas that I would argue are morally black-and-white, but I think doing what you can to make sure children aren’t being molested is pretty cut-and-dry.

Argument #2: “Paterno went to his superiors and did exactly what was required of his job.”

Even if you remove the obvious ethical issue inherent in turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children in one’s workspace, this scandal gets into more questionable legal territory in that school personnel in most states–including Pennsylvania– are subject to mandatory child abuse reporting laws. At least in my experience with them, they’re phrased in a way that makes it clear that you are required to report suspected or confirmed child abuse, even if it’s just a rumor– and even if your reporting turns out to be false, even if you have to testify against a colleague or a superior, you can’t legally lose your job for doing what is legally required of you. The risk for mandatory reporters is so minimal–which means there isn’t really much of an excuse for failing to fulfill that duty.

Argument #3: “Paterno was trying to protect a friend/colleague.” 

I’m a lucky lady in that I have several bad-ass rockstars I consider my closest friends, some of whom are my co-workers right now. I would have the backs of these jerks in any scenario you can throw at me–but “having their backs” doesn’t include allowing them to harm themselves and others and engage in unequivocally illegal, unethical, exploitive, disgusting activities. Maybe this makes me a bad friend, but activities like that are the best estimate I can give for where my loyalty to my friends ends–and, even if I still was able to muster up a single shred of good-friendship in a scenario like that, I think I would still have the wherewithal to figure out that the best thing I could do for a friend doing something that horrible would be to get him/her the help he/she needs.


Ultimately, Joe Paterno, and many other employees of Penn State, fucked up. There isn’t a coherent argument that will convince anyone otherwise. They didn’t do what was required of them in their jobs, and they certainly didn’t do what was required of them as decent human beings. The fact that people are rioting to defend Joe Paterno is a horrifying indication of how out-of-control the influence of athletics in higher ed has grown. And we can rage on these Penn State students all we want, but the worst thing about them is that they are not alone. This is not a problem exclusive to Penn State.

This scandal is a perfect storm of a lot of horrible things that go on in higher ed, things that I’ve seen in various iterations at both the midwestern D3 liberal arts college I attended during undergrad and the western D1 state school at which I’m working on my MA– the lionization of athletic programs, the value placed on maintaining institutional reputation at the expense of the protection of human beings, a passive-bystander culture, and a silence around sexual violence that leads to terrible administrative decisions and blatant rape apologism. It all has to stop, and I’m honestly disgusted by the fact that the rape of numerous children had to be covered up and subsequently uncovered in order for there to be widespread public acknowledgment of that.

But not as disgusted as I am by those who refuse to accept that acknowledgment and to see these obvious problems, those who are continuing to defend this broken system and the people who upheld it. Believe me, as someone who was raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, I don’t think I could have a more accurate understanding of how much football matters within certain communities–but it’s absolutely inexcusable to suggest in any capacity that the culture of a sport should ever take precedence over protecting the livelihood of any single member of that community. I can only hope that a lot of people in higher ed and athletics (and, I mean, just generally) begin to not only acknowledge that fact but act upon it as well–and not just at Penn State.



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2 responses to “joe paterno apologism 101

  1. Karen Alexander

    Kellie, I honest-to-God thought of you when I heard this story. “What must Kellie be saying?”–well, words sort of like that–came to my mind. Also, the whole Herman Cain thing. Just shows the gains we thought we’d made as a society over the last 40 years are very, very fragile.

    • Kellie Herson

      Thanks, Karen! I’m actually planning a post on Herman Cain next… the fact that he’s followed these sexual harassment allegations with jokes about Anita Hill and calling Nancy Pelosi “princess” is too ridiculous to pass up.

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