Friday, November 11, 2011

Joe Paterno And The General's Daughter

I have quite a few Penn State friends. Did they all initially have rational reactions to the news that their college was covering up for a serial child rapist? No. But it seems, days later, that cooler heads have prevailed, and most of them realize that Joe Paterno, as beloved as he was, had no choice but to leave.

However, school spirit dies hard, and I get the sense that many of them still don't quite understand why they should be mad at Paterno, the kindly old man who "lived in the same McKee St. house for decades. Chatted with us as he walked to practice. Ate ice cream with us at the Creamery. We have studied in the new library wing his money helped build. We have visited the sports museum and spiritual center he also helped build. We have seen him cheering on other Penn State athletes..."

I suggest these people rent "The General's Daughter."

It's not a great movie by any means, filmed at the tail end of John Travolta's cinematic comeback, right before Battlefield Earth sent him back to the C-list. But the flick, about a rape that occurs on a military base, has a plot not dissimilar from what happened at Penn State. A university, in particular a large, football-crazy institution like Penn State, resembles a military outfit in many ways, except with more keggers and pot smoking. In fact, the most popular defense of Joe Paterno's actions, invoked on this lawyer's blog, for example, invokes the phrase "After contacting his chain of command superiors, he let them do their jobs."

In The General's Daughter, John Travolta investigates after a highly respected general's daughter is found naked, legs and arms spread out and staked into the ground with tent poles, strangled to death. Yikeys.

Now, if you don't like spoilers, you might want to skip past this next paragraph and the video.

What Travolta discovers is that the general's daughter was actually recreating something that had happened to her back at West Point. During a training exercise, she was gang-raped by a group of soldiers. She reported this to a man she loved and trusted. Her father, the general. What did this man she loved and trusted do? He covered it up. Thinking it would be tough to get a rape conviction, and not wanting to sully the reputation of West Point, he makes the whole thing go away. The daughter, scarred from the incident, recreates the scene years later to give her father "something he can't cover up," but her father walks away, leaving her there. The daughter is then discovered by one of her original rapists, who kills her. Travolta, who previously admired and respected the general, lays the blame where it falls:

Travolta and his partner, meanwhile, have no problem tracking down and convicting all of the men who raped the general's daughter... if only they'd been able to do it sooner. Meanwhile, the person who could have saved the general's daughter finds his career destroyed, his life's work tarnished.

This is what a cover-up does. It allows an already tragic situation to get far worse. In both The General's Daughter, and at Penn State, a trusted, beloved figure had the power to save lives-- and they didn't.

Maybe Paterno truly did believe, at first, that the "chain of command" would remedy the situation. But as the years passed (and Jerry Sandusky raped more and more boys), he certainly could no longer believe that. Did his love of Penn State, and his friendship with his longtime co-coach trump his concern for a child's welfare?

Why should Penn Staters feel angry at Paterno? The same reason John Travolta feels so much anger towards the "villain" in The General's Daughter. This "villain" may not have committed the actual rape and murder, but he betrayed the trust, love, and respect of the person who came to him for help. In a place where "Joe Pa" is the general, he was the one the witness of this rape went to for advice on what to do. The right thing for the child would have been to call the police. All of us know this. We also know, sadly, what "Joe Pa" did instead.

So, Penn State fans, watch The General's Daughter and when the credits roll, ask yourself this: Do you forgive the "villian?" Or are you as angry as Travolta is? Then ask yourself if what Paterno did is really so different.

Actually, it is.

What Paterno did happened in real life.

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