Here's To Shutting Up

The difficulties of speaking about the unspeakable where Penn State is concerned, and our noise problem.
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Bunch of people with their priorities on straight.

I imagine video footage, which I am sure exists. Someone yells cut on an ESPN set, and the make-up people burst out and begin ministering to the faces of the people who were just talking. The make-up people are brushing, wicking, doing what they do, and the lights are still hot, the cameras will be live and transmitting again in a moment, but for the time being the debate—about whatever, the debate that isn't really a debate and which also never ends—has gone dark and silent. I think about the slackened faces of the people who have been sitting there in those chairs, on television, trying to take and defend a position one way or the other on whatever topic it was about which they were supposed to take/defend a position.

Should the NCAA take action against Penn State. Should the school tear down the statue of Joe Paterno, the gnomish erstwhile saint who displayed such lordly abstraction for a decade and a half when presented with the news that one of his most trusted lieutenants was a horribly prolific pedophile. Should we feel this way or that way about this or that. Should this action be taken or that one. Those slack faces, waiting to Have A Take or Make The Case, those tiny soft brushes moving over them. And all I can think, thinking of this, is "no fucking thanks." No thanks to this non-discussion, no thanks to this human tragedy as another fatuous hot sports topic, no thanks and no thanks and please be quiet, please.

As one commenter recently noted, we haven't written anything about the carnival of horrors at Penn State in months. We haven't really written about it much at all, actually. I wrote a column about it during our tumblr'ed pre-history—that story, now sadly without what was a fascinating comments section, is here—and Shoals wrote briefly about the way athletes responded to Paterno's death. But that was it: my daisy-cutter instant condemnation and a blog post about something LeBron James tweeted. Last month was Sandusky's 45-count conviction and last week was the 267-page Freeh Report. The former was addressed in the media with a sort of nauseous reverence reserved for things this horrific; it was just the queasy facts, which sufficed. The Freeh Report was no less hideous in its implications, and maybe more so. Sandusky, a monster if that even needs to be said, is also sick and behaved as a sick person would. There is no such excuse for the poker-faced pathology evinced by the ostensibly non-damaged people who conspired, mostly passively and fully abhorrently, not to act on what they knew about Sandusky's predations. This was an astonishing failure of empathy and a violation of the public trust and of course you know all this already, and probably knew it when the non-actors' first queasy public equivocations were issued last year.

But what is there to say about this? That the people named in the report acted appallingly, with criminal cowardice? Yes, they did. That a school that incautiously canonized a football coach and recast its identity as his made a stupid choice in doing so? Sure, yes, and of course they did: no one man should have all that power, as a contemporary philosopher has put it, and impunity is corrosive and again if you follow news about politics or banks or are familiar with history of any kind you already know all this, too. We didn't write about this because we are not in the business of telling you what you already know, and because there seemed to be no sense in delivering a new and more fulsome condemnation of things already roundly and justifiably condemned. But mostly we were quiet because it was already entirely too loud, and because the hysterical vigor of the various sub-debates—Penn State should ban football or sports or it shouldn't; it should tear down a statue or it shouldn't; the NCAA should "get involved" or it shouldn't—seemed not just unseemly, but symptomatic of a greater problem.

"I think," ESPN's Andre Ware said on College Football Live on Tuesday, "that [NCAA head Mark Emmert] gets the significance of this event for the NCAA, and for his presidency, and the need to"—and here there was a little hiccup in Ware's speech, like the sudden jolt of a speed-bump taken too quickly—"do something. And he's saying all the right stuff right now... The rulebook, if he has to rely on it, that's fine. If he can't use the rulebook, then it's time to use the bully pulpit of his office."

That is: if there was a NCAA infraction buried in this decade-and-a-half-long disgrace, the NCAA should impose some sort of penalty. If there wasn't a NCAA infraction, the NCAA should impose some sort of penalty. This knuckleheaded and paradoxically soft vigilantism is stupid, of course, and does not lead towards any solution that could deserve that name. But neither is it serious or seriously felt. This is a child's wish, this urgent, empty demand that someone do something, punish someone, say something, tear down a statue or rename a building or take some sort of action somehow and to some end. This is begging for an ending, something to feel okay about and sooner than later. This is what I perhaps-too-broadly wrote about last year in the wake of the first horrible revelations: this is not a football scandal but a cultural one, and anyway/as such is not a problem that is going to be solved by football minds saying football things, or by retreating into some new ecstasy of sanctimony or, lord knows, by the fucking NCAA. But it will take some thought, and some time, and it is work we'll have to do ourselves.

"Solve" is a tough word here, and maybe not the right one. The tendency to forget, at the worst possible moments, that other people are just as human as we are may not be something that people can solve. Our track record on this one is not great; we make the same mistakes over and over, forget every reminder. But we still need to remind ourselves, all the same. We need to do that because of how easy it is to forget that other people's kids are as precious as our own and other people's sufferings as acute; that we are all fundamentally in trust to each other and that a community without human values is pretty much a mob; that traditions curdle into simple bias if not refreshed and re-examined. We need to remind ourselves, each other, because of how easy it is to lose ourselves in a crowd but also to lose the crowd, because it is so easy to lose so much in all that noise.


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