Up until last Sunday, I didn’t really know anything about Penn State. And now all I know is its shame.
The first time I heard a reference to the school’s awful sex abuse scandal was when a friend posted something on her Facebook wall: “Not so happy in Happy Valley.” Not understanding the familiar reference to the university, I assumed she meant the power was out in town again.
Now, there’s no choice but to understand the sad irony that there is little happiness left in University Park, PA, the home of the university with the legions of football fans, an adored now-former longtime head coach and a black cloud of disgraceful revelations hanging overhead.
Prosecutors in the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office have charged Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, with the sexual assault of at least eight young boys. According to published timelines, the abuse stretches back at least to 1998, and perhaps further.
As accounts started to come to light over the years and intensely within the last few days, the horror became even more horrible: People knew that the abuse had taken place, and yet chose to either cover it up or not report it, likely to protect a football program and its revered legend. This included fellow coaches and university employees who allegedly witnessed instances of rape, university officials and perhaps others.
And so it was tacitly allowed to continue, and who knows how many more victims the scandal claimed as a result.
In other words: Children were sacrificed all in the name of a football program.
The closest I get to Penn State is that I was born in Pennsylvania and lived there for a year after I was born. I come to this story with the perspective of knowing nothing at all about the hallowed history of the Penn State football program or the 84 year old coach Joe Paterno, who I’ve now come to learn, helmed the team as an untouchable, sainted figure. I’m not a college football fan, although I know enough about sports psychology and pop culture to understand the allegiance of those who are conflicted about the ramifications of all that has happened.
So I can only look at this through the best lens I know how: Why was this horror allowed to go on for as long as it did, and why did no one stand up for the children?
Because, despite one man’s legendary leadership, despite a storied football program, despite a philosophy they all preached about living by a strong moral code… despite all this, the grossly immoral acts Sandusky has been charged with are compounded by the hypocritical inaction of others, men supposedly living by a moral code of higher standards themselves.
As the parent of children in the age range of the reported victims I am deeply saddened at another display of people in power who hurt children using the cover of charity and subterfuge. I am further disheartened that so few in the circles that ripple outward from the events’ epicenter seem torn about what is right.
Those that abetted Sandusky by their silence; those in leadership who placed football over moral right; the students, alumni and fans who have since protested subsequent disciplinary events—like Paterno’s firing—either by rioting on campus or through change.org petitions supporting Paterno; these are people whose actions I have a hard time understanding.
In this situation I can’t see the gray area. To me there is no moral quandary.
Unless we learn this, we can never be sure that the next time someone will stand up to defend the children.