SPEAKING OUT: Penn State University students (from left) Evan Ponter, Alicia Archangel, and Ryan Kristobak protest outside of Penn State's administrative building in State College, Pennsylvania., on Nov. 8. Football coach Joe Paterno was fired the next day. (Photo: Newscom)
It is the kind of scandal that just doesn’t belong in the sports pages — the athletic stadium is supposed to be a place for retreat and hope. As in October 2001, when in the thick of post-9/11 perplexity the New York Yankees nourished the nation in a collective daydream. Or in February 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. Save the conspiracy theories, these and other moments of sports history — think, for example, of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and Arthur Ashe — prove that sports often transcend the realm of simple athletics to signify something greater. These moments provide humanity with an opportunity to recess (in the truest sense) and affirm the goodness, or at least the possibility of goodness, in a broken world.
In other moments, sports reveal more broken images of humanity. As in October 1988, when holier-than-thou Notre Dame played then-troubled Miami University, in a game marketed by Notre Dame students as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Yuck. Or worse: when the stability of a college football program is justifiable reason to cover up the sexual abuse of multiple children over multiple years.
Let’s be clear: There is nothing GOOD about the Penn State story. As an advocate for child rights, I cringe at every new detail. But whether any good comes out of this story depends on how much we pay attention. Even the worst story has a few good lessons. I’ll tell you what we won’t learn.
We won’t learn what students actually learn at Penn State. Not from the thousands of kids who rioted and destroyed their own property in the name of a coach who was complicit in the abuse of multiple children. I’m worried about the lapse in critical thinking that allows college students to be so reckless. That’s formidable ignorance.
DEFENDING JOE PA: Penn State students showed their support for their football team's former coach, Joe Paterno, prior to the school's Nov. 12 game against Nebraska. Paterno was fired earlier that week. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren/Newscom)
We won’t learn about the college football program those students love so dearly. As you may already know, the NCAA is already involved in a vapid hypocrisy around the (unfair?) treatment of college athletes. It goes like this: colleges make a LOT of money, student athletes make none, and can face harsh violations if they even accept a free lunch. I know college life — I’m taking all free lunches.
Penn State is yet another cog in a wheel that needs destroying. They protected a known sexual predator (yes, they knew; we’ll get to that), and for obvious reasons. Think now: Penn State’s football program brings in $50 million a season — on a bad year. That income stream depends upon the stability of TV contracts and bowl appearances. Gotta have a good team for that. Gotta have good players for that. Gotta win recruits for that.
What do you think would happen if a recruit found out that the defensive coordinator of the football team was a child molester? A lot of greasy palms get dry very fast. Can’t happen. So when a family comes forward — in 1998, mind you — with allegations of abuse against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State allows him to retire, quietly and comfortably, with emeritus status. District attorney decides not to pursue charges, police drop case, Sandusky keeps an office at Penn State. In 2010, Jerry leaves the charity he founded — The Second Mile — citing “personal matters” he needs to handle. Here’s what’s personal: another child came forward, told the charity, and they flipped. The only reason they didn’t call CNN immediately? Penn State. It’s not that they want to protect Jerry Sandusky, but they have to protect Penn State football.
In doing this, the university has placed a value on children’s safety — a cardinal sin that occurs daily outside of sports — and Penn State football just made my “Not a Fan” list (your list might be named something different). The bitter irony in all this protecting and shadowing is Penn State didn’t even win a National Championship from 1998-2010! They can’t even do wrong right.
We can’t learn much from Jerry Sandusky, except for how to pass “Go” many times before heading to Jail (a higher authority will deal with our frustration — check Matthew 18). You don’t wanna be Jerry Sandusky.
Neither are the innocent children in the scope of our learning. All they have are my prayers for a fulfilling life to overcome the dark days ahead.
That leaves Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach and resident idol of State College, Pennsylvania (“icon” is too soft a word). He is at the center of all this. Remember those riotous college students? The college football cover-up? The continuous flow of children that Sandusky had access to because nobody wanted to spoil the pot? Keep pulling that string … Joe Paterno is holding the other end.
He’ll have you to think he’s a victim — gotta love those folksy, front-lawn press conferences — but let’s be clear: the ONLY victims are the young boys (now men) who must live in shame of being exploited in their vulnerability. Everyone else here is a casualty of the cowardice of Joe Paterno. Let me explain.
ABSOLUTE POWER: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Before his firing on Nov. 9, Paterno had been a coach at Penn State since 1950. It was revealed today that he's battling lung cancer. (Photo by Scott Audette/Newscom)
When families came forward in 1998, the president and board of Penn State turned to “Joe Pa,” and he took no decisive action. When then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary found Sandusky in the showers performing sexual acts with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, the first person at the university he told was Paterno.
The jury is still out on why McQueary didn’t go directly to the police. Did he not know that sexual abuse is a criminal act? More than that: How powerful are you that if someone is being raped, people call YOU before the police? Try to grasp that.
Nevertheless, Paterno had a chance to take immediate action in the 2002 incident but didn’t. Instead, he waited a full day before reporting the information to Penn State’s athletic director, and even then nothing was reported to the police. The administrators who were technically Paterno’s superiors worked to cover up the mess that was brewing, and both have been arrested and charged as a result. But even then, Paterno could have stepped in and made sure Sandusky’s alleged crimes were reported to the authorities. But that didn’t happen.
It’s easy to see now that Penn State’s reputation, and the preservation of its precious football program, were the chief concerns of these adult individuals who could’ve put an immediate stop to Sandusky’s interaction with children.
The teachable moment is yes, absolute power corrupts (and Joe Pa’s power was pretty absolute), but also that genuine leadership means the power and permission to change or destroy lives. If you have enough authority to save a life, you can probably ruin one as well.
Those are the conversations I hope students at Penn State and elsewhere will begin having in the aftermath of this tragedy. For America has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit — we are training leaders and affirming the use of power and influence to make this world better. But there is such a thing as integrity and justice. And for a few years, the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania lost sight of that. Look what happened.
Future leaders: take notice.
You’re an adult. You hear of or even see another adult sexually abusing a child. It could be at your church or school. It could be next door or in your own home.
What would you do?
You would do everything in your power to stop it, or at least call the police, right? Especially as Christians who take seriously God’s command to protect “widows and orphans” (in other words, the most vulnerable in society), there’s no way you would let another adult abuse a child. So, why is there likely an adult near you in position of leadership such as, a priest, pastor, coach and mentor, who is abusing a minor?
It’s estimated that one out of three girls and one out of six boys in the U.S. is molested by an adult annually. The abuser is usually someone close to them, such as a family member or coach on their team. There are an estimated 493,000 registered sex offenders across the nation. Many of them were child abuse victims.
The Penn State University tragedy, where former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has been charged with 40 criminal counts of child molestation has returned this issue to the forefront. Sandusky denies molesting several boys in his Second Mile mentoring program, during a 15-year period. The revelation that has only this year come fully to light, has led to the resignations and firings of top university officials, including the president and legendary head football coach Joe Paterno. The Penn State community is in shock. Sounds like the church.
Child molestations perpetrated by men of the cloth have been well documented. How do molesters go unnoticed despite other adult Christians being around? The signs are there but not easy to detect. A search of several websites yielded molester profile clues such as:
• Adults who prefer jobs where they have access to children
• Men who seem to love children and to whom children are drawn.
• A person who is either extremely authoritarian or passive.
Basically, the only near certainty is that most molesters are men (though based on recent media coverage there seems to be a growing number of women offenders as well). Anyone — teacher, coach, priest or pastor — can be a child molester.
But adults don’t always want to see the signs, either. Adults have jobs and reputations to protect. If we blow the whistle, it could lead to a firing or losing that next promotion or pay bonus. Adults put other adults on pedestals; when our icons are accused of wrongdoing, we identify personally and go into denial. Adults build and worship institutions that become our identity. We pride ourselves in attending a prominent school or church. This is in part how priests and pastors have been able to molest minors with impunity. But eventually as we put more value in the institutions than in the caring for those most vulnerable among us, the institutions, like all idols, must crack, even fall. They can never bear such weight that is reserved only for God.
Still, sometimes adults sense the sin, and just don’t know what to do. The American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry advises to do the following if a child hints that they’re being abused:
• Take them seriously and show that you understand and care.
• Don’t be judgmental, but encourage them to talk freely.
• Tell the child the abuse is not their fault
• Tell them you will protect them and act to prevent the abuse
• If you’re a family member, report the abuse to the local Child Protection Agency
• If you’re outside of the family, report it to police or the district attorney.
God reserves a special place in his heart for children, and he views their innocence as a virtue that we must all embrace. Recall, for example, the words of Jesus in Luke 18:
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The Bible doesn’t specifically address child molestation, but it’s clearly a sin. Doing nothing about it is a sin, too. James 1:27 reads:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Penn State community is asking itself, “How did this happen to us? Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we see the signs?”
They are questions for all of us adults to ponder.
For Additional Info
Check these online resources for more information on Child Molestation Statistics and Tips on Recognizing and Dealing with Child Sexual Abuse.
What if it wasn’t rape?
FALLEN LEGEND: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired after failing to take more decisive action away from the field.
Amidst all the horrific stories in the grand jury report about retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual assaults on boys he met through his Second Mile charity is the somewhat less sensational story of “Victim 6.”
This boy was 11 years old in 1998 when Sandusky picked him up at his home, rubbed his thigh en route to Penn State, briefly worked out with him (but not hard enough for the boy to break a sweat), and then insisted they shower together.
“While in the shower, Sandusky approached the boy, grabbed him around the waist and said, ‘I’m going to squeeze your guts out.’ Sandusky lathered up the boy, soaping his back because, he said, the boy would not be able to reach it. Sandusky bear-hugged the boy from behind, holding the boy’s back against his chest. Then he picked him up and put him under the showerhead to rinse soap out of his hair,” the report says.
What if it was your child?
The boy testified that the incident felt “very awkward.” When he went home with wet hair, his mother questioned him about it, reported what happened to Penn State police, and later confronted Sandusky with a university police officer listening in the next room. Sandusky confessed to the disturbing and suspicious behavior, but there was no arrest.
I pull this story out from the more vile ones in the report because it illustrates what kind of behavior and outcomes most mandatory reporters face, and because it’s important to highlight the fact that it mattered a whole lot that one mother stood up to Sandusky and Penn State, thereby establishing an initial record of an alleged sexual predator’s deviant behavior.
What if it was your best friend?
At The Washington Post, columnist Sally Jenkins provocatively asks readers to forgive Sandusky’s boss, coaching legend Joe Paterno, for not reporting his assistant to police, because, she reasons, Paterno’s friendship with Sandusky blinded him. A friendship that close probably would have blinded you too, she implies.
As former FBI agent and pedophile profiler Ken Lanning tells her: “A hallmark of ‘acquaintance molesters’ is that they tend to be deeply trusted and even beloved. They are not strangers, but ‘one of us.’ They are expert at seducing children and are almost as expert at seducing adults, including parents, into believing in them.”
I’ve seen this happen. That it does isn’t an excuse for Paterno or anyone else who fails to act; it may just explain their initial self-deception. (Men’s Health editor Bill Philips suggests some other possible explanations here.)
What if it was your institution?
Amidst a bevy of posts on this story, American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher said the situation “causes us to reflect on the meaning of loyalty, and the meaning of courage.”
“Loyalty is only a virtue depending on the object of one’s loyalty. A mafioso is loyal, but his is a criminal loyalty,” he says. “The difficulty comes when one is asked to be loyal to a worthy cause or institution that is perpetuating or harboring evil.”
What if it was your culture?
Then Dreher turns the inquisitor’s lamp on himself and compares the Penn State situation to 1950s Jim Crow racism in the Deep South, where he grew up.
“I am seeing every day black people discriminated against, by law. Do I stand up against it? I am sorry to say that I am virtually certain that I would not. To have done so would have required going against … well, everybody in my own community.” But then Dreher imagines how he might’ve reacted had he witnessed a white man raping a black boy. “I think it almost certain that … I would have intervened, even violently,” he says, before confessing candidly: “But unless I was confronted directly with something that heinous, I probably would have euphemized and abstracted the evil away, because I couldn’t have faced my own moral responsibility.”
What if it wasn’t so blatant?
It’s easy to condemn a large, muscular man who doesn’t rip a rapist off a child, and other self-serving bystanders who fail to act. It’s much less clear what to do when the man’s behavior, like Sandusky’s thwarted attempt at “grooming” Victim 6, is wrapped in a fuzzy blanket of ambiguity, friendship, and good deeds.
What would you do?
Ask yourself: Would I have reported that?