You’re closer to a Penn State scandal than you’d like to admit
The wave of condemnation since the Freeh Report on Penn State released a week ago has been loud and massive. Powerful men chose to protect the university’s gleaming surface and a pedofile over children seeking a father figure but finding a monster. The outrage is more than justified.
Like many, I’d feared what the report commissioned by former FBI lead man Louis Freeh would contain. Even though I have no connection with the school or area around it, I’ve always had an appreciation for how the program was run. “The Penn State way” meant success gained how it should be – through the simple precepts of hard work and honor, exemplified on Saturdays in the team’s basic dark-royal-blue-and-white uniforms.
As we now know, that honor was misplaced. An overbearing allegiance to an institution, in time, compromised those very virtues it preached to uphold. I can’t imagine there not being whispers about Jerry Sandusky, especially after the fall 2000 incident where a custodian witnessed the former defensive coordinator and a young boy in a sex act in the assistant coaches’ shower room. That custodian, a Korean War vet who said it was an image he’d never forget, chose not to report the incident for fear of the influence held by head coach Joe Paterno.
Unrelated directly to the Sandusky case but showing the university’s sure seat of power, a highly-regarded vice president of student affairs made the mistake of expecting football players to face consequences of other students. After repeated run-ins with Paterno she was summarily dismissed.
By this point the soul of The Pennsylvania State University had become darkened. Although four names have kept appearing in the Freeh Report, it’s not a stretch that the list of those complicit runs much deeper. Secrets were surely kept, whispers suppressed. After all, football season was coming.
Here is where our self-righteous indignation, including my own, needs to be checked. I grew up in a state where a certain houndstooth-hat-wearing coach was indeed seen as a god. He still is. I remember his death being a story worthy of the six o’clock news a full month later. A sad country song was written about him. Grown men cried.
Don’t tell me the Penn State scandal couldn’t happen in Athens, Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, or Knoxville. Cathedrals packed to the brim of more than 100,000 rabid followers showcase the talents each week of young men barely out of their teens. Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive gave his own not-so-veiled word of caution this week at SEC Media Days, saying, “Last’s week’s headlines remind us that we must be ever vigilant on all issues of integrity. … There must be an effective system of checks and balances within the administrative structure to protect all who come into contact with it.”
Even closer to home, we all make face decisions that test our convictions. Communities in our county have those sacred institutions – whether it be a church, school, team, or civic group. Overwhelmingly, they usually instill local pride and serve a dutiful purpose in that area, but the far-reaching lesson from Penn State is that a commitment to the institution over its founding principles soon overshadows and even erases its contributions.
A recent Gallup Poll reported that Americans don’t trust institutions anymore. Organized religion, public schools, banks, and television news hit all-time lows in the survey. In religion’s case, that decline began in 1973. What’s interesting is that the percentage of Americans who say religion is very important in their lives has remained consistent from that point. People still believe in the key principles, but distrust the gatekeepers.
When your god allows an environment where young boys are abused, that god must die. Penn State needs to be rid of football for a couple of years. Melt down the statue of Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium and use the bronze to forge 26,000 pairs of baby shoes, each representing the approximate number of children that have died in this country from abuse since May 3, 1998, the first recorded instance of Sandusky’s actions, to his conviction on June 22.
And may we all resolve to protect the virtues we feel our team, school, and/or church represents, lest we take the same path.