Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sick to My Stomach, Again. . .

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. . .


(November 14)

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. . .


  1. You've fairly much summed up my own feelings about the matter. It's a hideous shame, it probably could have been prevented from reaching the stage it did, and I'm not sinless enough to start ranting about how horrible some of those people may be.

    You succinctly summed up the mindset of a sports coach, of course. In my own small way, as a manager of softball teams, I'm both single-minded and simple-minded. As long as a guy can do a certain job for me, that's all of my focus. What he does off the field hardly concerns me, except that I'll celebrate his joys and commiserate concerning his sorrows, IF he brings them up.

    Lots to think about here. Good job.

  2. I love your blog and have been reading it for quite a while, but I rarely take the time to comment anywhere. But the Sandusky story just makes my soul hurt. I can't believe that is wife was so unaware and can't believe that university officials turned such a blind eye after hearing accusations for several years. How could they not think of the children first? I find myself mind-boggled by the question of "how does one abuse children in this manner?" What could have happened to that abuser as a youngster to bring on the behavior or what part of their brain has such a problem as to allow it.
    So so sad.

  3. whatever other complexities exist in the decision-making processes of other people, can we at least agree that sandusky deserves to have his nads carved out with a rusty grapefruit spoon, stir-fried, and force fed back to him?

    forgive me.

  4. Just too disturbing for me to comment on.

  5. Suldog - Thank you; you are very kind.

    Unk - Thanks for taking the time to comment; I'm gratified that you like this humble blog.

    "Makes my soul hurt" is a very apt way to put it. . .

    I don't want to put more on his wife than is warranted, and nothing that's been said so far implicates her in the least. But wives often have a sense when their man is 'otherwise occupied'. . .

    Skip - You're welcome. I think. . .

    Lime - That sounds about right. . .

    You're right, of course - whatever anyone else might or might not have done, none of this happens if Jerry Sandusky doesn't rape little boys.

    That's a big part of the sadness of the whole thing, for me. It's just horrifying, the size of the crater, and the number of other people (hell, a whole university!) that got sucked into it, all because of one execrable asshole. . .

    And you know what's even more disturbing? It comes to seem that he set up the foundation (a charitable foundation!), at least partly for the purpose of providing himself a supply of boys. What kind of pervert even thinks that way?

    Bijoux - Believe me, I understand. . .

  6. there was a loooong damn chain of failures and questionable decisions by so many people. it's just unfathomable that NO ONE pursued it. if one single person in that whole group had....

    and yes the "charitable" foundation which allowed him to prey more effectively on children already at risk. can the fires of hell burn hot enough?

  7. Well, my standing on this is a bit more clear/concrete. Having been falsely accused of misconduct on more than one occasion my patience, or maybe tolerance, for letting real events slide does not exist. The fact of the matter, in my mind, is that all of the Penn State officials who were made aware are not simply negligent but rather were made accomplices by their refusal to simply make a phone call to those who could act.

    I have made that call on an occasion when others did not act, at no small cost to me. Charisma and power are hard to challenge.

  8. Lime - Yup. One giant chain of 'I don't want to rock the boat'. . . Of course, such a happy boat-rocker as yourself might see more clearly on this than I do. . . ;)

    I can't help thinking that we train ourselves (and each other) in these 'bad moral habits' with hundreds of similar choices whose consequences aren't so stark. Not often do our (seemingly small) moral failures result in boys being molested, or space shuttles exploding. . .

    And yet. . . How often did you hear, in regard to a certain former president, "As long as he does a good job, why should I care what he does with his private parts, or with whom?" The same thing might very well have been said of Jerry Sandusky. . .

    Xavier - Power/charisma are indeed hard to challenge. . .

    Of course, you are right; as has often been noted, if even one, out of all those people, had done more than the minimum possible, this would be a much different story.

    "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

    And you, like our friend Lime, are perhaps fonder of rocking the boat than most of us. . . ;)

    A quality, I should hasten to add, that I admire in you both. . .

  9. i get your point about the laissez-aire attitude toward the private lives of others and please understand i'm not justifying the bad behavior of a former prez. there is a difference in the two situations in that one involved a defenseless 10 yr old being victimized by a grown man who had him pinned against a wall. children depend on the adults around them to protect them when they cannot protect themselves. the other involved a consenting adult woman, albeit one who was in a position of being under authority and certainly having less power than the guy she was blowing. we can have the debate about being manipulated by someone in a position of great power or being intoxicated by being noticed, etc., but she WAS an adult and not being coerced physically to participate.

  10. Of course I understand the difference, but, as you correctly note, my point was relative to the ways we train ourselves to 'look the other way' when maybe we shouldn't.

    I read a book about another former president who was given to, um, sexual adventures, and the author (who was certainly no prude) made the point that his behavior put the nation at risk of blackmail by hostile foreign governments.

    I guess another part of my point is that 'private morality' is often not as 'private' as we think it is, and that 'private' actions, especially when multiplied by a few million, have potentially disastrous social consequences.

    Richard Weaver wrote a book (back in the late '40s, I think) called Ideas Have Consequences. And I can't help thinking that Jerry Sandusky is just one more instance of the Sexual Revolution come home to roost. . .

    Sheesh. . . that got awfully sweeping, dinnit?

  11. sorry i don't see jerry sandusky as a result of the sexual revolution. he is a monstrous pervert and monstrous perverts have existed as long as humans have. again, i am not condoning wild promiscuity with the idea of having no consequences but the promiscuity of the average "sexually liberated" person does not involve preying on those far weaker than oneself.

    the argument about a president's behavior putting himself and therefore a nation at risk of blackmail can hold some water. i had not considered that angle before.

    and i have continued to ponder your question of what would i have done. it's a fair question and good to take a hard look at oneself in that way. it came to mind this morning that i have in fact intervened in the past. it wasn't a child being raped by a man but there was a neighbor boy who was about 7 or 8 at the time. i was driving by when i saw that he had been knocked to the ground by a group of older teenagers who began to kick him. i pulled the car over, got out and approached them, not knowing if any of them had a weapon of any sort. when i told them to back away from the boy they tried to defend their actions by saying he started it by referring to them with a racial slur. i affirmed to them that what he had said was wrong but that it was wrong for a GROUP of much bigger people to beat the crap out of a child. i put the kid in my car and drove him home. during the ride i asked him if he had learned anything about the effect of his words and suggested he choose them more carefully in the future. honestly, that kid and his whole family were a bunch of bigoted pains in the butt. but he was still a child who was in need of safety and my conscious would not have let me sleep if i had continued driving by.

    i'm thinking taking on a single, naked man who clearly had no weapon for the sake of a child obviously being victimized would have been a no-brainer. sorry if that sounds sanctimonious of me. not my intention.

  12. of course that last paragraph is in reference to the grad assistant who walked away when he say what he saw. i've read the grand jury indictment. it's pretty unambiguous what he saw and the grand jury found him to be a highly credible witness. my husband thinks the grad assistant should be cut some slack because we don't know if he was threatened about going to the police. sorry, he should have intervened the second he could tell that child was being raped. he was 28 yrs old at the time he witness the attack. he wasn't some naive college freshman.

  13. I actually agree that Jerry Sandusky isn't really a direct outcome of the Sexual Revolution. But some of the 'enabling attitudes' (ie, toward porn, perhaps) are. Returning to my previous comment, a social environment has come about in which many, if not most, of the 'social restraints' on sexual behavior (the 'control rods', if you will) have been removed. And that has made situations like this one more possible. . .

    I applaud you for your intervention. Really. That's a great example to me, and I thank you for sharing it.

    Obviously, you'd want to think that a naked man, um, 'in the throes' wouldn't present much of a threat, and that a basic intervention, on the order of, "What the hell are you doing, coach? Stop that!" would be eminently possible. When I imagine myself in that scenario, that's about how I imagine myself responding, and that's what virtually every commenter I've heard would advocate. But without actually being there, I just can't say with absolute certainty what I'd do, and I don't think they can, either. That's why I brought up my experience with the former leader of our community - as we all sit here, none of us knows what 'interpersonal power' dynamics might have been at work. Which, again, doesn't excuse his woeful lack of intervention; but it should give a bit of pause to those who think they know with moral certainty what they'd have done. . .

  14. And going back a couple comments, I was invoking the former president also in part to question the way that 'important people' are often given a pass because of their eminent wonderful-ness on other accounts. That was certainly true of President Clinton; it was true of our community's former leader; and it's possible that it was also true of Jerry Sandusky. . .

  15. with regard to the former leader of your community, you don't relate a tale of catching him in flagrante, which is far different than merely having suspicions which you push out of your mind due to his charismatic personality.

    i hasten to add that in the state of PA teachers are under a law of mandatory reporting to the dept of public welfare if they reasonably suspect a child is being abused (they can be held liable for false reporting as well). granted that's more applicable to public and private school teachers dealing with minor students who would see such things on an every day basis. but i am curious how it applies to a collegiate level.

  16. in case you're interested, here's the indictment.

    also, i understand the reporting reluctance of people who were not eyewitnesses but the rand jury does not find all of them credible witnesses and in fact states that one of them gave materially false testimony with regard to the incident.

  17. Suldog referred me to your blog in his comments this a.m. on my post about this situation and I want to thank you for a very introspective piece on this mess. And yes, that is what it is -one HUGE MESS!

    I can fully understand what you said about your neighbor, about the other very charismatic person you knew too -as I know from first-hand experience how when things along these lines happen to people we thought we knew well and respected -it does shake our world and not just a little bit either!

    Jerry Sandusky definitely was a man with connections and power -lots and lots of both -in the State College area. I am an alumni of Penn State University and I live about 35 miles from there, plus I have worked both on and off campus over the years too so I have a tiny bit of familiarity with the power factor and the connections that arise from anyone being involved in the glorious football program at PSU. And yes, I've also always been a huge fan of Penn State football -Penn State anything really -and especially have admired Coach Paterno over the many years too. No, I don't know him or Mr. Sandusky personally, nothing like that, but someone with the reputation Paterno has around these hills -he was notorious for being "Squeaky clean" it does boggle the mind that he got embroiled in this whole thing.
    This past week has been one of tumult with the arraignment, then Paterno's resignation, followed by the Board of Trustees' firing him and of Pres. Spanier's dismissal as well. The student riots following the latter two events -well, sad to say those type of responses to many things by the students is something that gets my dander up almost as much as the whole other stuff does! Any excuse to drink and create havoc, do damage to others property has almost become the norm in State College of late.

    As I wrote in my own post, this whole thing angers me and saddens me -greatly -on so many different levels. As LIME pointed out though, the law in Pennsylvania is such that ANYONE working in the educational/social services/medical community having information that even hints at child abuse/sexual abuse and the like, is obligated to report that immediately to Child Protective Services/the police. No exceptions! That was one of the mantras that was reiterated in my coursework at Penn State as my degree is in Rehab Education/Counseling.
    I especially appreciated your description too though of how people -especially coaches -can get so thoroughly wrapped up in the "game" that they don't see anything but that. Much as I also love the sport(s) one of my frequent complaints in our school district has always been that money can rarely be found for things that push education but can always be located when the student athletes need/want things. (Think sports ranks higher than regular school supplies train of thought there.)
    But anyway, I apologize for taking this much space but wanted to tell you that you are not alone in the way you are looking at this whole issue and to thank you too for putting your thoughts out in here in a reasonable, well-thought out post. Penn State, the school, will recover, so will the Football program -eventually too. But the cost right now -undefinable -because of the toll for those young boys and the harm caused them over so many years.

  18. Thanks for coming back, Lime. I am enjoying the back-and-forth; that's how we sharpen our thinking, and I appreciate you taking the time. . .

    As far as our former leader and catching him 'in the act', he was 'caught' numerous times at small, nagging things that eventually added up to a troublesome pattern - things as petty as cheating at poker or telling dirty jokes, or the time he was too drunk to show up for a talk he was supposed to give (those are all things I experienced directly, along with an odd 'meanness' that was startlingly dissonant from his more 'public' face; others may have had more 'insight-giving' experiences). I should say that I knew him for many years as nothing but admirable and inspiring; only in the last year or two did things start 'spinning out of control'.

    And again, our first impulse was to 'wave it off', or excuse it, because he was so 'special', and we'd known him for so long as admirable and inspiring. But once the whistle finally blew, we found out that what we'd seen was just the tip of the iceberg.

    It is an interesting question as to how the law, which was almost certainly written with elementary/secondary teachers/students in mind, would apply to college educators. . .

    Thanks for the link; I've seen it. . .

    Jeni, I am honored by the thoroughness of your comment. In order to do it justice, I'll need to return later. . .

  19. While I am not at liberty to give specifics on the one time I had to make a call I can share some of an instance I was 'participant' in. It was somewhat similar to this report with a twist or two. I walked in on an adult preparing to take liberties on a buddy in a locker-room shower. I hesitated for a moment, nearly thinking of backing out and just reporting it. Then I realized that if I had been a bit quicker to the shower that might have been me instead of my buddy.

    Fight or flight, I quietly walked up behind the adult and clocked him good. My buddy went nuts on the dazed creep and I had to pull him off after a few mins. With the power and charisma thing we were about to be charged with assault when other youths stepped forward, finally feeling free to speak up.

    No one in my 'real' life knows of this other than my mother. And he's no longer a buddy, my face reminds him too much of that day.

  20. Jeni - Thanks again for stopping by. The 'closer' perspective that you and Lime bring is interesting, and helpful for my understanding.

    As I understand it, State College is pretty much a college town, and only a college town, unlike most of the other Big Ten schools. And as successful as the football team has been there for the past half-century or so, it's not hard to imagine that the coaches would be like regional royalty there (and coach Paterno's 'squeaky-clean' rep extends far beyond Happy Valley).

    And of course, PSU would hardly be unique in (at least seeming to be) valuing athletics above academics. You'd have a hard time getting 100,000 people to pay $75 apiece to watch math majors solve equations, if you know what I mean. . .

    So yeah, the whole 'power/charisma' thing. Pretty intimidating to stand against it, I imagine. . . You know what I'm wondering about? Why Sandusky 'retired' in 1999. He was all-but-anointed as JoePa's designated successor, but then, out of the blue, he walked away. Which, in hindsight, would make a lot more sense, knowing what we know now. But the grad-asst/kid-in-the-shower thing was in 2002. Did he get caught in '99 and got covered-up for?

    Ack. I don't really want to think this deeply on it; really, I don't. . .

    Xavier - And thank you for sharing that story. It really is encouraging to hear stories of people going past their fear to do the right thing, and strengthens the notion in me that I could do likewise, if I had to. . .

  21. May you never have need to find out ....