Have you ever read the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson?
The story is quite famous. At Perry Hall High School I probably had to read it at least twice. Perhaps even if you haven’t read it you’d be familiar with one of the many pop culture references to the story.
Let me try to jog your memory a bit with an even shorter version of the short story. Every year, members of a village gather together for an event known as “the lottery.” One member of every household in the village grabs a slip of paper hoping to avoid grabbing the marked slip. After it is determined who picked the marked slip, every member of the person’s household re-selects slips. They then determine which household member has selected the marked slip and promptly stone that person to death.
In the lottery captured by the short story, the marked slip was initially selected by Bill Hutchinson. His wife Tessie Hutchinson was the unfortunate “winner” of the lottery, bemoaning how the process was “unfair” before her end.
As gruesome as the story sounds, there’s such a level of brilliance to it. Particularly brilliant is how Jackson never really explains how the lottery came about or why the village continues to participate in the exercise. It is understood that some members of the village have discussed disbanding the lottery but the tradition continues nonetheless.
During the entire Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal that has engulfed Penn State University, I’ve thought about the short story over and over again. I thought about it the night PSU students rioted after the firing of head coach Joe Paterno. I thought about in the weeks and months after Paterno’s death. I’ve thought about it a ton during the days since the release of the Freeh Report.
I’ve thought about it because it has remained clear that the cult-like following of Paterno and Penn State football has somehow continued and the culture that enabled such heinous crimes to continue still very clearly exists.
I’ve mostly thought about it because I believe at least some if not many of the Cult of Paterno members have to be otherwise right-thinking individuals. I don’t know why those villagers kept going back to participate in the lottery year after year in Jackson’s story. I don’t know why a group of college-educated people choose to ignore (or at least excuse) fact and simply say they’ll support their former head coach anyway.
Maybe I shouldn’t say I don’t know why. I probably do. The fact is that the Cult of Paterno just doesn’t want to believe truth because they’ve already consumed the Kool-Aid. There is no going back. They’re not just members of the cult, they’ve become the foundation after the coach’s death.
(I want to take this time to point out what most other analysts have also done. This is not a conversation about everyone everywhere that has been connected to Penn State. This is a conversation about a particular group of people. Some Penn State students, alumni and fans have been able to stand up and accept the truth about their heroes and the football program they worship. I’ve had the good fortune of speaking to many of them in the past week. They deserve a great deal of credit. They are not part of the Cult of Paterno.)
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