Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What Penn State Tells Us About Us

I am in the middle of NaNoWriMo, and so I didn't want to take time out to write about anything else.  But this just won't die, and I have to state my piece so I can let it go and go back to the novel.

I have watched for the past several weeks about the events that have unfolded surrounding former college football coach Jerry Sandusky and the accusation that he has, for the past couple of decades, used his position as a college football mainstay to form a charity called Second Mile, which allowed him to gain access to and sexually abuse God-knows-how-many young boys, most of them pre-teens.  Worse still, it now appears -- and becomes more evident with each passing day -- that his colleagues and bosses at Penn State, both in and out of the athletics program knew he was sexually abusing these boys, and for inexplicable reasons, chose to remain silent.

In what I think is the most horrific story, in 2002, then-assistant coach Mike McQueary came across Sandusky, in a shower, in the process of raping a 10-year-old boy.  He told a grand jury last week that - the next day - he told head coach Joe Paterno, who reported the incident in turn to the head of Penn State's athletic department (Tim Curley), who in turn reported it to Penn State's president, Graham Spanier. The result?  What did these fine individuals, charged with the molding and shaping of Pennsylvania's young people do when confronted with this ghastly circumstance?

Sandusky was apparently ordered simply not to bring children from Second Mile to Penn State's campus again.

End of story.

Now, the buggering chickens have come home to roost, at last, Sandusky has been charged, and Joe Paterno has been fired. And how did many of the fine young people at Penn State choose to respond to this scandal? They rioted at Joe Paterno's firing. Because they were afraid that Penn State wouldn't have a winning football team anymore.

Okay, now that we've taken a little trip to Crazy-Stupid-La-La-Land, let's come back to Earth again, shall we?

If this were any other department in any university, the department would be immediately shut down and staff involved in this heinous cover-up would be fired. Pensions lost, futures shattered, law suits filed.  But this isn't any department. This is football. And football is what this country is all about. Sports and fame and the money that they generate rule the day.

Michael Steele and Joe Scarborough both took the stand on Monday's Morning Joe that the entire program needed to be shut down for a year while a huge house-cleaning takes place. Their argument was that, if the program was to continue over the long haul, a complete coming clean had to happen immediately. The opposing argument by Luke Russert and a couple of other folks at the Morning Joe table was that you couldn't "hurt the kids" in Penn State's football program for the crimes of their leaders.

And this is the crux, isn't it, kiddies.  Luke Russert's argument is that the young people at Penn State who trusted those who guided them in the athletics program should not be affected by this.  I say Russert couldn't be more wrong. The football program at Penn State should be suspended immediately, for a year, until every person in that department -- and in Penn State's adminstration for that matter -- can be rooted out and fired or prosecuted as an accessory after the fact.  Athletic scholarships should be continued, allowing students to continue to matriculate this year, at the expense of the athletic department, whether they think they can afford it or not.  I realize that football careers will be interrupted. I realize that television revenue will be lost. I realize that the entire school will suffer for this. So be it.


Let's look at the economy. (Yes, there's a point. Hang in there.) Because of the actions of a few incredibly greedy, incredibly irresponsible Wall Street gamblers, the entire economy of the wealthiest nation on the planet sits on the verge of collapse, still struggling to pull itself back onto dry land after an economic tsunami the likes of which hasn't been seen in the world since 1929.

I didn't own a home I couldn't afford. I didn't contribute to a hedge fund. I didn't bundle worthless derivatives and sell them.  Yet I, personally, have suffered from the economic disaster of the past four years. And so have you, and I'm guessing most of you haven't contributed directly to the crisis in any real way. But we suffer together, because we chose to make a community. We chose to unite in a type of social, economic and political collective where we pooled some of our resources and, in doing so, we yoked our fates and ourselves in a very real way to one another.  Because that's how community works.

If the bursting of real estate and bad debt bubbles all over the country send ripples through that community sufficiently to impact each of our lives, shouldn't the raping of one innocent 10-year-old have at least that kind of an effect? Are we really, as a community, prepared to do what Paterno and Curley and Spanier did almost ten years ago, and turn our backs on that boy and on all children who daily come into contact with the pedophiles we refuse to see in our midst who would do them harm?  Is that who we are? Right now, students choose to riot the firing of Joe Paterno, hold candlelight vigils in his honor and mourn his termination. But outside of a brief display last Saturday by the Penn State football team (which was moving, let it be said), no student at Penn State has made a public show of support for the children Sandusky raped and brutalized.  Proof enough, I think, of the need to readjust the timbre and tone of Penn State's academic leadership.

Right now, this moment in time, we as a country, as a people, are being asked to consider what kind of people we are, in a million little ways.  Will we provide the sick and the poor with care and sustenance? Will we stand together and end two immoral and illegal wars in the Middle East? Will we band together as one and rise to meet wealthy power brokers who think they can run us with no resistance?

Will we place the needs of a college athletics program over the salvation and protection of children in the community?

The side that each of us chooses in this debate is not a choice to save young people from actions of their adult faculty leadership. That ship sailed when Paterno, Curley and the others turned their backs on that little boy, and all the little boys they knew Sandusky had access to (including foster children in his own home, by the way).  Now, the choice is not how will we protect Penn State.  The choice is how will we, as a community, band together to make sure that it never happens again.