Friday, November 11, 2011

School Spirit


The child molestation scandal at Penn State, for me, is yet another rendition of how institutions turn into monsters while no one is looking.  Certainly the assistant coach who did the molestation is the nucleus of the cancerous cell, but the whole body is Penn State, a culture trying to grow itself into a sort of deification.  On the Today Show Thursday, a columnist from the New York Daily News told Ann Curry that the whole horrible issue is about "branding," and it is:  the need for the institution to "grow" beyond its natural state of being, into a way of life, into a way to worship not just academics and sports, but the institution's scope and swagger, its ability to keep growing.  That's what Joe Paterno and everyone else involved had on their minds when they made decisions.  Sure they also had a relationship with the molester, and sure they did not want to jump to conclusions, but as all this is coming out you can see it was incredibly hard to ignore the truth.  Janitors saw it happening.  Another coach witnessed it.  Families of the victims were complaining.  And still the primary goals for the institution and its mandarin society was the "brand," keeping that "brand" clean and shiny and ready to grow even larger.

That's what happens when people begin to lose the understanding that what has been created for simple purposes like learning and playing sports has somehow become a behemoth based on congregate arrogance.  So those kids and others who stomped around Penn State campus this week, pissed because Joe Paterno had been fired are just continuing that zombie dance of "branding."  They don't want to stop that growth; they want to believe in the invincibility of tradition.  It's a mirror image of the scandal that has momentarily limited the growth of the Catholic Church.  It's institutional arrogance.  School spirit turned into mob politics.

The coach/molester was allowed to thrive within the institution's blindspot because the institution willed that blindness on itself.  No ugly stories, no horrible nightmares please:  this is Penn State. 



It just so happens that I bought the first season DVD of Friday Night Lights this week, and watched the first few episodes.  I had stumbled across the show on a flight to London in September, and it blew me away.  What this TV show does best is dramatize that "branding" process I'm talking about:  small town high school football being turned into a reason to live, an institution that blocks out truth in order to keep the "brand" going, because without that "brand" many people's lives would somehow be not worth living any more. 

However, Friday Night Lights also allows us to see that those lives are worth living, with or without the Friday night game.  It conveys small-town life as beautifully complex and strange in many ways, and also lets us see how everyone both contributes to the institutionalization/deification of high school football, while also trying to struggle against its omnipresence.  Kyle Chandler plays the head coach, and of course he is gung-ho and a little jingoistic about the game, but his love for it does not allow the game to eat his common sense alive.  In one episode from this first season, the coach first stands up for one of his players when they are caught beating up another student in the parking lot of a local hangout.  The player says the kid he beat up, a fat, geeky loser who was overheard talking about how stupid football is, was "talking smack" about the team, and that justified the beating.  Chandler plays the coach with a finesse and intensity that allows us to see how he both wants to ignore the incident and also somehow applaud the beating as the ultimate example of "school spirit," and yet also we can see in Chandler's face a sort of dawning of skepticism as he inspects his own motives with the help of his wife (a guidance counselor at the school played by Connie Britton, one of the best actresses I've ever seen on TV).  Finally the couch musters the guts to confront his player and kick him off the team.  It turns out the beating was just plain old bullying.  And at the end of the episode the coach goes over to the fat geeky kid's house and apologizes to his mother and him. 

That last scene was haunted for me by the Penn State scandal.  Of course I understand the difference between TV and reality, but this time TV held the higher moral ground.  It made me think:  what would it have taken for Paterno and some of his henchmen to let go of their egos and their sense of institutional obligation, and to go over to the houses of the molested kids, and to look their parents in the eyes, and say, "We are so sorry.  We believe you."  What would it have taken for Paterno to call the cops?

Common sense. 

And an obligation to a power higher than even Penn State:  common decency.