Friday, November 11, 2011

Not-So-Happy Valley

I confess...I am captivated by the story, much more than I'd have imagined.  I live just outside State College.  The region is known as Happy Valley but there's truly nothing happy in this saga and, November weather aside, the town feels very gray and somber.  Beyond a quick sports score report, our local stories are rarely national news.  Until this week when the story of football coach Jerry Sandusky repeatdly abusing young boys hit the news.  The story became more involved when it became clear that other university representatives were aware of the situation, including Joe Paterno ("Joe Pa" to the town), the head coach of the football team, a legend in college sports and an idol in this town. 

Of course, my heart aches for the victims of this abuse.  It went on too long.  Even one innocent life disrupted is too many.  There are currently nine victims listed and there is little doubt that there are many more out there.  The evidence, including two separate eye-witness accounts by adults who observed blatant sexual abuse, is pretty convincing.  I do believe in our presumption of innocence, but I have a hard time thinking that this many stories are all false.  Other than a few purporting to reserve judgment until everything is heard, I have only heard condemnation for Sandusky.  The outrage at the allegations is just.  It is cases like these that make me wish we had truly harsh penalties for serial child abusers (i.e. you misused "it", we're gonna cut it off).  Okay, I wouldn't want that system most days, but I can't deny feeling like jail would be too easy.

When you get beyond Sandusky, I do think it gets more complex.  I took a course called Higher Education & The Law and I know that there are very complex rules that govern colleges and universities.  These rules can be especially detailed with a large university such as PSU.  It seems clear that Joe Paterno was informed of the abuse on at least two occasions by direct eye-witnesses.  These weren't "iffy" cases, like a hug that lingered too long, and the reports were clear.  In turn, Paterno reported the incidents to his superiors.  This is, from what I can tell, what the rules dictated.  Although there may be added wrinkles given that children were involved and child abuse does have some strict reporting guidelines, it seems like Paterno did follow the letter of the law.  Moral duty is a whole different question and I do think his failure to go beyond the reporting scheme likely allowed Sandusky's actions to claim more victims. 

I can see an argument for staying within the rules, a trust that they work and an attempt to avoid any potential false claims even though that does not feel likely to be happening here.  Even when someone is fully cleared, I doubt they can ever recover their reputation after a false allegation of sexual misdeeds, especially with a child.  I don't think this excuses anyone but I do think it merits note.  It seems to me that Joe Pa should have done more, but that the people to whom he reported bear even more of that responsibility. 

I understand the decision to fire Joe Pa.  Even more, I understand the decision to fire the University President.  Several in the middle resigned.  I think that would have been a smarter (and nobler) move for all.  PSU seems to have given them the chance and only acted when it became clear they didn't plan on it (Joe Pa said he'd retire at the end of the season).  I do not condone the violence in some student protests, but I can also feel a bit for the students.  Most of the protesters have been peaceful.  They are 20 year old kids whose idol was just ripped out from under them.  They want to still believe in him.  He did a lot for the team and for the school and, in a way only young people can, they feel this vivdly.  I do not think they are demeaning the victims...none are protesting in favor of Sandusky.  I think they just feel like Joe Pa, a beloved figure, is being made a scapegoat.  He followed the rules and that is what they see.  Beyond that, it is complex and they may not be ready to take it all in.  They want to believe in Santa, even after seeing presents in the closet.

And that idolization leads me to another thought.  I've heard some people say "this isn't about football, it is about abuse."  Of course, it is about abuse.  There's no question there and no question that nothing can give back to the victims the innocence they lost.  But, it IS about football too.  It is about idols and heroes.  It is about the power we place in the hands of the few.  The degree to which people worship the team and its leadership is a big issue here.  It is always hard for victims to come forward.  Especially children.  Especially boys.  This is exponentially increased when the abuse is perpetrated by people in power.  Sandusky was seen as a "great" and the full package.  He was not only an athletic leader but also a mentor dedicated to helping young people succeed.  This gave him access and granted him more silence.  It is hard to speak against a hero and even harder to speak against someone you are told is providing opportunity to so many young people.  This makes the analogy to the church abuse scandals feels very apt.  This story is about football because it is football, and the community work that grew out of his football career, that gave Sandusky power.  It gave him the silence of his victims and no doubt also made it harder for the eye-witnesses to report the crimes.  A winning and loved coach versus a janitor, in a town that worships sport and loves idols. 

Taking a pretty big tangent onto the sport....I also feel awful for the members of the team.  In general, I think high-level college athletes are spoiled.  I'm not a fan of the amount of glory (and, in ways that sneak around rules, fiscal reward) we give to the college football elite.  But these kids certainly have worked hard to excel at their sport and, for lack of an eloquent way to put this, it just stinks that their college sports career will be forever marred by this story.  It will be a tough remainder of the season and their football days will always be associated with events over which they had no control.  They are certainly not to blame. 

There are talks of boycotts.  Others seem even more likely to attend this week's game because they view it as a way to show support for Paterno.  I admit I'll be interested in seeing how the Saturday game unfolds, both in the stands and on the fields.  Of all the suggestions I've seen on how the community should respond, my favorite involves fans still attending the games (assuming they'd have gone prior) but wearing black to show grief for the abuse victims (others say blue but that doesn't feel like a strong message to me since it is "normal" for fans to don blue and white). 

There's a lot of emotion in this story and a lot of emotion in this town.  Legacies will be altered by the story, sports history will be written about these days.  The town and the school need time to process and time to grieve.  Tee-shirts have long advertised a city that Bleeds Blue and White.  There are wounds, especially given that the school often prided itself on a team that did right in addition to winning games.  I think the strength of the community will, however, let it move ahead.  It will heal. 

As for the victims, I doubt they can ever fully heal and they cannot be given back what they lost.  But I hope they find help and find their feet.  Maybe that's actually the best way forward...for the school and the community to show support for ALL victims of abuse.  There is little that is better for the spirit than a united cause.  I hope the community can use all this energy and all the spirit behind it to help prevent future abuse and help victims find support and guidance. 


Anonymous said...

It's pretty terrible all around. As I'm not a football person, I find the outrage over the firings to be a little difficult to understand, but certainly I get that for a lot of the college kids, the football program is a huge deal. It's interesting to hear your viewpoint, since you're actually involved in academia.

The Rambling Blogger said...

just to clarify...i'm not in academia. i did take two school law courses in law school and the ex is a professor.

i would be interested in a supporting role in an academic institution (i.e. non-teaching) but haven't had luck as of yet. maybe you are predicting the future and my phone will ring tomorrow with a job opportunity!!

Anonymous said...

Oh, for some reason I thought you already were in that kind of role! Oops. Well, I definitely hope it's prophetic in that case!