I really don't want to say anything about the whole mess that's going on at Penn State right now, but on another level, I really don't want to let it pass without comment, either. It's just nauseating, sickening, and sad, depending on which angle you're viewing it from. And I have multiple perspectives that probably don't add up to a single coherent set of thoughts, but as I've listened to the sports-talk shows (I have a long commute), there's been a distinct shortage of rational commentary, and even what passes for reasonable, isn't always. (*sigh*) Fools rush in; Lord, have mercy. . .
For those of you who may not have read the sports pages (or heck, the front pages) over the past week, the situation started coming to light with the arrest over the weekend of Jerry Sandusky, who, back in the 70s-90s, had been the defensive co-ordinator of Penn State's football team, on charges of sexually molestating young boys. Which was a fairly big deal, and not quite your garden-variety sexual-abuse story. Penn State is a pretty prominent football program, and their head coach, Joe Paterno, is one of the most beloved figures in all of college athletics; Jerry Sandusky was Paterno's right-hand man for decades, and widely expected to be his successor when (if) he ever retired. Until he (Sandusky) suddenly and unexpectedly retired himself in 1999 - he had started a foundation to help 'at-risk' kids, and he wanted to devote more of his time and energy to the foundation.
So far, so good, right? Except that it turns out that, from at least 1994, until at least 2009, Mr. Sandusky sexually abused at least 9, and possibly 20 or more, boys who he'd met through his foundation. In 2002, he was seen 'in the act' by a graduate assistant, who, after much anguished soul-searching, told Coach Paterno the next day what he'd seen (though perhaps not in very specific detail). Paterno told his 'boss', the university's Athletic Director, about it, and the AD told his boss. And the upshot of it was. . . basically nothing. Sandusky was told not to bring boys onto university property anymore. No-one called the police; no-one even bothered to find out the name of the victim. And Sandusky got to abuse kids for seven more years. Unbelievable. . .
Now that the situation has come to light, it winds up being utterly devastating - an all-consuming fire that ends up with one of the great coaches of all time, who is, by all accounts, and in all sorts of ways, a good man, and a decent human being, being summarily fired from his job of 46 years, the Athletic Director and at least one other high-ranking university poo-bah fired, and the president of the university resigning under a cloud. And it's all so sad. Except when it's sickening.
Of course, it all starts with Jerry Sandusky, who was obviously something very, very different than he appeared to be. But the responses of those who might have done something about it were unbelievably, unfathomably lame.
And the thing is, I understand it. I understand, which is not to say that I excuse it, or that the behavior in question is remotely defensible. It's not. But I understand. Sinful human being that I am, I understand.
I played football, and my sons have played football. Football coaches are a pretty unique breed of human being. The most successful ones (I stop short of saying 'the best ones') are usually pretty monomaniacally focused - all they do is football, all they know is football, all they care about is football (one famous coach, when he finally got the coaching job of his dreams, told his wife, "just go ahead and file for divorce, 'cuz this is the last you're ever gonna see of me." What a prince, eh?). Football coaches are not, as a general rule, great intellects (except where football is concerned), or moral philosophers. They're football coaches, and that's what they do. And so, I can understand Joe Paterno taking the report from the grad-assistant and passing it on to his boss, and going back to the business of coaching football. And hoping that it goes away, so it doesn't distract anyone from football stuff. And never having it bubble to the top of his consciousness that, Holy Shit, a kid was molested by one of my coaches, right here in the football building showers.
The young graduate assistant, who in the meantime has become an assistant coach, has come in for a ton of criticism, and justly so. Most of it has been on the order of, "You accidentally come upon a 60-year-old football coach raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers, so. . . you go home and ask your dad what you should do? How the hell do you walk away, and leave the kid to keep getting raped?? And yet, on another level, I can understand. Let me explain. . .
Years ago, in our Christian community, we had a very strong, very charismatic leader. The kind of guy who walks into a room, and everybody turns to notice. The kind of guy that other guys - even really strong guys in their own right - wanted to follow. The kind of guy whose approval other men (and, let's be candid - women) craved. In the fullness of time, his feet of clay became all too evident, but by that time, we were all trained to think that he was 'special', and the normal ways of doing things didn't quite apply to him. The evidence was right in front of our faces, but we didn't see it; we didn't want to see it. And I can easily imagine that Jerry Sandusky had carved out a similar niche for himself at Penn State. I mean, he was the guy who coached the linebackers at 'Linebacker U'. I can easily imagine a grad-assistant having some serious soul-searching with himself, just because of the cognitive dissonance between what he'd seen, and what he'd always known of Jerry Sandusky. . . And then wondering who the hell would believe his word against Jerry Sandusky's, anyway. . .
Another story from my own life. When our older kids were single-digits young, Jen and I became friends with another couple, who lived down the street from us, and had kids the same age as ours. They even joined our community, and we spent quite a bit of time together, for a while. Then, after we'd known them for a year or two, suddenly the husband was arrested and charged with child molestation - his daughter had a little friend over, and he 'helpfully' offered to give the girls a bath (no, the 'little friend' was not our daughter; as far as we were ever able to discern, our girls were never his victims). And the thing is, I was absolutely certain that the charges were ridiculous. I knew this guy. He was a family man's family man, devoted to his wife and kids. And yet. . . Big life lesson there for my young self.
There's a part of me that wonders about Mrs. Sandusky - certainly, it's not unprecedented for a husband to be engaged in behavior of which his life-partner is clueless, but I wonder what, if any, clues she might have had. . .
When I scrape all these thoughts into a pile, I don't know what conclusion, exactly, they lead me to. I hasten to reiterate that, by saying 'I understand', I am in no way excusing anyone's behavior, or making light of the heinous-ness of the crime. In part, I am invoking The Log and The Speck - I am not certain that, in the same circumstances, I would do significantly better. Part of what I find grating in much of the public commentary is the sanctimoniousness, the affected moral superiority of so many of the commentators, as if THEY could never do anything so DISGUSTING as that (and good for them, if they couldn't, eh?). I just hope that I know myself, and my own potential for sinful bahavior, a little bit better than that.
On another level, everything coming out of Penn State in recent days is just more data to confirm what GK Chesterton once said, to the effect that, of all the teachings of Christianity, none was more empirically obvious than the fallen-ness of human nature. Feet of clay all over the place in State College, PA these days. And therein lies the bulk of the sadness. It wouldn't have taken very many people to be very 'heroic' at all, to make a much better (though still sickening and sad) situation of this, but nobody, not even the formerly-sainted JoePa, found it within themselves to do so. The guy who is at the center of it all, who was once a Respected Leader and Former of Young Men, is now a poster-boy for 'We Had No Idea'. . . And somewhere out there are 20 or so young men and boys who got dragged through experiences that no-one, much less children, should ever have to endure, at the hands of a trusted mentor (I will admit that there is a part of me that isn't beyond observing ruefully that Catholic priests don't have the pedophilia market cornered; but there is absolutely no joy to be taken from that observation. . .)
Things are only just getting underway in earnest, and by the time you read this, even more facts may have come to light. It is entirely likely that things will get worse before they get better.
Lord, Have Mercy. . .
(add November 13)
In reading through the indictment, it appears that there was an incident in 1998 which seems to have led to Sandusky being told by Joe Paterno that he would never become the head coach at Penn State, which in turn seems to have precipitated Sandusky's out-of-the-blue retirement after the '99 season. In that case, the police were involved, but the District Attorney decided not to bring charges against Sandusky. It is never stated why the DA decided that, and the DA seems to have dropped off the face of the earth, but if anything, that situation seems even more egregious than what happened in 2002, and reeks of the DA 'protecting' a prominent person. Although, again, the DA isn't around to give his story. . .
So, if Joe Paterno knew enough to tell Jerry Sandusky he wouldn't be getting head coaching job in 1999. . .
Man, much as I might wish otherwise, this just keeps getting worse and worse. . .
And here is an op-ed (from the NY Times, of all places) that makes a similar point to the one I started out making. . .