The Penn State University Disaster
Almost Unreasonable Introduction
I think that I’d like to write that almost everybody involved in the Jerry Sandusky scandal is a weapons grade asshole, that the insistence upon the superiority of a football program over the victimization of children is evidence of this, and that the entire school ought to be burned to the ground and rebuilt from scratch, if only because such a thing might make somebody feel better. But I’ve been told that kind of writing doesn’t accomplish anything – because it is base, because it is simplistic, because it trades analysis for bombast – and so I’ll try instead, briefly, to reflect on what we have learned today.
What We Have Definitely Learned Today
What we have learned today, as a result of Louis Freeh’s massive (and costly) investigation into the Penn State University Scandal, is that seemingly everybody with any hint of power and authority is guilty of participating in a massive conspiracy to protect Penn State University, Joe Paterno, and Jerry Sandusky from suffering the repercussions of Sandusky’s brutal sexual predation. It is later in the day now, so I assume you have followed the news, but for those wanting to read an in-depth analysis of Freeh’s report (as well as almost everything related to the entire history of the case), try Deadspin’s coverage.
It seems that nobody who had the power to intervene in a manner that would have protected children chose to do so; in every imaginable scenario – from Sandusky admitting what he had done to children to Sandusky being caught attacking children – every administrator decided that it made more sense to protect Sandusky than it did his victims. This includes ubercoach Joe Paterno, who repeatedly intervened on Sandusky’s behalf, ensuring that his defensive coordinator would have the means and access it took to groom his eventual victims.
What We Might Have Learned Today
Here is the extent of my expertise about this particular issue: I used to work with sex offenders. They were juveniles, but amongst our training materials were videotaped interviews with incarcerated sex offenders who outlined (often in excruciating detail) the ways in which they operated. To a man, each of them explained just how easy it was for them to convince adults of their own innocence. Again and again, they lured children into sexual contact, and again and again, they were able to wriggle free of their responsibility. These men were ministers or coaches or stepparents, each assumed to be above and beyond the sort of cruel behavior that they were accused of, and each of them used the respect they enjoyed as get-out-of-jail free card.
In Sandusky’s case, he was a prominent member of a coaching hierarchy that oversaw an enormously successful and popular team, a team elevated out of all proportion by a community that viewed the Nittany Lions as Gods walking amongst mortals. Sandusky knew this and used it to his advantage, which allowed him to gain and maintain his access to children over the course of generations. For those tasked with the program itself, rocking Happy Valley’s boat – by doing anything about Sandusky (like going to the police) or, more damning, indicting Paterno – was to risk the sanctity and importance and necessity of it all, and so it was that for seemingly every single person with any involvement, that risk was simply too high. Sandusky was allowed to prey on children long after it should have become clear that he was a threat to their well-being and now, the University’s reputation is a shattered wreckage.
Or at least, we hope it is. We desperately hope it, because how (how?!?) could an institution of that size escape the sort of crackdown that it has coming? Fingers are crossed.
A Less Emotional Conclusion Than I Had Originally Planned
Today at PSU, just as the Louis Freeh was about to hold a press conference to discuss his committee’s damning findings – as students gathered around televisions in the University’s student center to watch Freeh’s words excoriate an institution that they once held in the highest esteem and which they now almost certainly would not – a funny thing happened. The televisions switched from cable news stations to a public access channel. That public access channel was hosting a show exploring Pennsylvania’s budget. We live in an age of immediate connectivity. It is unlikely that any of those who were denied the cable news roundup of Freeh’s findings went wanting for long. Who was that little stunt going to fool? Yet, it was attempted. This stands as the smallest possible example of what the University’s official policy was over the course of decades: make the problem go away so as to protect the team. It also makes one wonder if anybody has learned anything at all.
The preferred policy of just making it go away has failed entire by every imaginable measure. Not a single good has come from it. But what gives me pause is this: this will not be the last time we see a policy like this employed. It often seems to be the preferred method of handling crises. Even if such a policy allows for children to be victimized. Even if such a policy allows for communities to be devastated. Even if such a policy leads to institutional decimation. I wanted to rage and to judge and to swear at the beginning of this, to curse at this plainly human catastrophe but this new realization is far darker, to the point that it makes me want to sit quietly in my unlit basement, not thinking about anything at all.