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The Sandusky Scandal and Stasis Theory: How Rhetorical Theory Shows Us What We Should REALLY Be Rioting About

November 10, 2011

Allegations that Jerry Sandusky, a long time assistant coach at Penn State, sexually assaulted several young boys over the past fifteen years have been the talk of the (cow)town the past few days. I’m fascinated by the story myself, but I guess I should start out by saying that I’m not particularly a huge fan of sports entertainment. Living as I am in the heart of Stiller Nation (no, not those Stillers), this makes me feel a little left out sometimes. I mean, it’s not sports per se that I don’t really get—I’ll usually watch a game with no complaints if someone else wants to—but I’m often perplexed by the sheer omnipresence of talk about sports. Maybe I just lead an unfulfilling life, but I can’t imagine ever talking as passionately or with such poise about my preferred forms of entertainment (even to my friends and even about things that have already happened) as the people who for some reason feel compelled to call local DJs to share their conjecture about how future games will go down.

So while I can’t address this issue as a sports fan, making sense of talk is what we do here at The Silver Tongue—and there’s a lot of talk surrounding this scandal.

A lot of other fascinating non-verbal rhetorical action, too, now that Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier have been fired, and students took to the streets to protest. Seems fairly obvious, but both of these things are rhetorical. The University is saying that they’re taking the scandal seriously; the students are saying that they’re pissed off about losing a favorite figure in university history.

It’s easy to understand why this issue has sparked some heated emotions—it involves abuses of power, alleged cover-ups, and hearkens back to the still-ongoing discussion of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, an institution almost as culturally sacrosanct as Penn State football. Plus, since just about everyone with any knowledge of the abuse whatsoever seems to have reported it to one superior or another, it illustrates how following the chain of command can lead to further problems, something anyone who’s watched The Wire already knows because of the number of times Jimmy McNulty got so frustrated about the chain of command in the Baltimore PD that he said the f-word.

It’s that last one that’s particularly interesting to me, especially following Paterno and Spanier’s termination. Neither is suspected of any legal wrongdoing. But the concern, as argued in a recent opinion piece by Maureen Dowd in the Times for example, is that although many individuals who had reason to know about Sandusky’s actions—Paterno, then-graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary, a janitor and his supervisor, and so on—did what they were minimally obligated to do by reporting to their superiors, they had a greater moral obligation to inform the police.

I’m inclined to agree, but that’s not really the point. The point is that the decision to fire Paterno and Spanier indicates that the Penn State Board of Trustees is inclined to agree too, or at least to act like they agree for the sake of damage control. Rioting students, however, are obviously not inclined to agree because they like JoePa and think that he did all he was supposed to do. And while I giggled at Dowd’s snarky quote regarding “the delusion that the ability to win football games indicates anything at all about your character or intelligence other than that you can win football games,” I think it’s a bit of an inaccurate description of what’s actually sparking the unrest over the termination.

I’m not sure that anyone would sincerely argue that Paterno absolutely shouldn’t have called the cops, or, conversely, that his decision to not call the cops makes him an unequivocally bad or unintelligent person. The dispute isn’t even over whether or not Paterno did everything he possibly could to stop the abuse, but over whether or not he did enough to justify keeping his job. It’s not whether or not Paterno’s actions (and the actions of everyone else in the chain of command) were good or bad—I find it hard to believe that anyone would argue in hindsight that anyone involved did all they could or handled the situation unimpeachably—but whether or not these actions were the appropriate response given the relative positions of the individuals involved and the structure of the organization in which they were operating.

That said, I think that this means that focusing on Paterno’s character and/or the consequences of his termination for his legacy dodges the real issue. If most of the people involved (even excepting the two who face criminal charges for their role in the cover-up) did what they were “supposed” to do by reporting to their immediate superior, then it’s that supposition that needs to be interrogated. If the structure of an organization is such that multiple people can fulfill their responsibilities within the organization and something this horrible can still go on, then debate about the individuals involved distracts from how broken of a structure that obviously is. And that’s something worth taking to the streets to fix.

If you want to know more:

  • When I say that the outcry is revolving around Paterno’s character when it should be revolving around the structure of the University’s sports program, I’m drawing on Stasis Theory, which is something we’ve talked about before. It’s a notion from classical rhetoric that says that arguments tend to happen at predictable points like definition, quality, and action. I’m saying that focusing on Paterno’s character and legacy gets us stuck at the quality stage, while the real issue is one of action. That said, I’m not sure that the ancient Greeks have much room to talk on this matter, given their own culture of what would today be classified as rampant sexual abuse. Here’s a lol that Doug and I made involving that very issue because we’re clever fellows. If you don’t get it, read the Phaedrus. It’s funny, I swear.
  • To a lesser extent, this incident also involves dissociation of concepts (which is another concept we like here) in that the idea of “responsibility” is being split up into “moral” and “legal/organizational” obligations. We don’t have any lols involving Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, though. Suggestions/links welcome.
  • As a final contentious tangent, perhaps it’s just because I grew up listening to Rage Against the Machine telling me that riots are “the rhyme of the unheard,” but I can’t help but get a little agitated looking at images of mostly white crowds of students fortunate enough to be in college raising their fists and engaging mob-like in the destruction of public and private property pretty much just because of, you know, sports. I want to see rioting as a tragic expression of insurmountable frustration by the legitimately oppressed, and you pesky kids are ruining it.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2011 9:48 pm

    Nice post Matt. Hope you and the others can keep it up.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      November 12, 2011 12:29 pm

      Thanks for reading, Mark!

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