After what people are describing as the most trying and difficult week in Penn State’s history, it may seem like everything has changed. But I suspect that really, very little has changed at all. And that, I think, is quite unfortunate.
For all of those who felt dismay over the news about Sandusky’s repeated sexual abuse of children, who were horrified by the details in the grand jury report, who were struck with rage, anger, or even heartbreak when the Board of Trustees fired Joe Paterno, who were filled with disappointment over the unfair, sensationalizing media coverage that portrayed Penn State students as misguided, riotous idiots, who emphasized that the actions of a few do not represent the majority, who gathered with candles in hand to insist that we have not forgotten about the victims, please accept this letter as a message for you.
Given the gravity of the scandal itself and the unbelievable series of events that followed after news broke out, the thousands upon thousands of people who have been directly and indirectly affected by it, and the depth of so many emotions that have been brewing over the past week, it is important to stay clear about the issues at stake. To begin, it doesn’t really matter if you were in the riotous mob that turned over a news van or if you were among the mass of students at the vigil, because both events demonstrate the power of groups, and how quickly individuals can get swept up in “group think.” There’s little doubt that a vigil is a less pernicious collective demonstration than a violent riot, but the vigil, the solidarity marches, the singing of fight songs and the alma mater, and cheers of “We STILL are…Penn State!” raise strong doubts for me because, in large part, the greater context for these actions hasn’t changed in light of the scandal. What these demonstrations reveal is that no matter how well-intentioned some groups and their actions may be, the vast majority of people who care about what has happened at Penn State over the past week have mostly failed to truly identify the problem for what it is, thereby unintentionally contributing to the problem itself.
Let me explain.
Here’s what most people have been willing to recognize: Eight or more young boys were victimized and sexually abused by Sandusky over fifteen years, and there were repeated failures on every level of administration and leadership at the University and within the community to prevent it from happening again. This means that others–such as Spanier, Curly, McQueary, Schultz, and Paterno–are implicated to varying degrees by their complete impotence, inability, or unwillingness to act appropriately and recognize their responsibilities to aggressively intervene, to help the victims, to contact the authorities, to follow up and hold others accountable.
When Spanier and Paterno got fired, when major networks from CNN to Comedy Central started reporting on the riots that followed, a different “voice” was desperately trying to be heard. Aside from the less than 10% of the student body that rioted, there was a strong presence from concerned students who emphasized that we should be refocusing our attention on the real victims, the children. Of course we should show deep concern and compassion for their lives, their traumas, and their healing, and the vigil, the fundraising for RAINN, and the “blue-out” at the last home game were all student attempts to recognize the victims.
But I really don’t want this piece to be read as yet another write-up that emphasizes the “for the victims” messages. To be blunt, I think we’re still missing the point.
I don’t want to suggest that raising funds and social awareness to stop the sexual abuse of children, holding vigils, and wearing blue to support the victims are bad things. Of course not. They are important actions that demonstrate a compassionate response to devastating realities. What I am trying to do is hold our attention on a deeper problem at Penn State. I think it’s quite dangerous to say that we should turn our attention to the victims and insist that this whole situation isn’t about football, that it isn’t about Joe Paterno, and that Penn State is more than just football anyway. That’s because this situation involves more than just a series of crimes that were committed by one person towards a number of young kids. Many others were complicit in the cover-up and perpetuation of the crimes, which made it into a scandal, and the scandal came about because this whole situation actually IS about football, which means that this IS also about Joe Paterno. Of course, it’s about much more, too, but for now, it has to be recognized that PSU football and Joe Paterno cannot be dismissed from the equation.
So here’s the real problem–the one that should stay the focus of our attention, and the one to which people SHOULD have responded with anger, outrage, disappointment, and calls for collective action:
The leadership and administration at Penn State failed to do the right things. And the moral failures on behalf of so many people did not occur by accident.
People wonder, “Why didn’t the children ever speak out?” or “Why didn’t everyone who was involved do more?” To help answer these questions, we have to turn our attention to the power of Penn State as an institution and the blinding, cultural force that is Penn State football.
Sure, there’s more to Penn State than just football, but one can’t deny that the culture and identity of most PSU students center on that which Penn State is best known for: football. And this is not a simple matter of exciting games and fun tailgates. Football generates millions and millions of dollars for the university. And with that money and notoriety comes an image, a reputation, a legacy that feeds into itself by generating more money, drawing more people to the university, funding one of the largest libraries in the nation, supporting top-notch research. The success of Penn State football is not separate from the academic flourishing of the university. For this reason, the student reaction to the firing of Joe Paterno was not wholly misguided. People LOVE Joe Pa and showed such dedicated loyalty to him in spite of the scandal because he has done so much for the university. Again, and more specifically, he helped build up a university, sports and academics and endowments and reputations included, by serving as the head coach of a football team.
When so much prestige, reputation, and revenue comes out of any department, which largely supports a university on the whole, the people involved in that department have very strong incentives to protect against anything that would shatter that image. For this reason, it may be unfair to think that the coaches and administrators were only looking out for themselves. One could perhaps even go so far as saying that by failing to do much of anything to stop the abuses, and thereby facilitating the cover-up that sowed the seeds for the present scandal, they were actually looking out for the best interest of the university and the student body at large.
A utilitarian calculation might suggest that when the reputation and culture and image of an institution that carries so much sway and influence over the lives and identities of hundreds of thousands of students and alumni was at stake, it may be better to give Sandusky a warning and a slap on the wrist by telling him to stop showering with boys and not appoint him as the next head football coach. The hope is that it would be enough to end the abuses without making the graphic details public, which would run the risk of jeopardizing the name of a University that so many love and support. In other words, when everyone invests so much into a university (emotionally and financially), that can put a lot of pressure on those in higher positions of power to protect the name of that institution. So it may not be that the particular individual interests of people like Sandusky, Spanier, and Paterno were set above the safety and rights of eight children. Instead, it could be that the interests of Penn State, Penn State football, and all of the students and fans and families who love Penn State took precedence.
What if this is what went through people’s heads when they were caught in a position to make an ethical decision? What if the interests of the institution, and those who benefit from its power and prestige (again, not just Spanier or Paterno, but the interests of everyone else too, including all the students and alumni and fans who bleed blue and white), were set above the interests of specific individuals who, in this case, were a handful of young children?
I raise these questions to highlight a tension and put it into critical questioning: Could it be that the dedication, loyalty, love, and commitment to Penn State that has been conjured up by student-led movements for solidarity, to proudly claim that “We STILL Are…Penn State,” are rooted to the very same investment in and identification with an institution that fed into the unethical decisions of its administrative leaders? If so, how might this possibility change our responses to the events from the past week?
I’ll put it another way. Since we are those very students and fans and Penn State loyalists whose interests might have been protected at the expense of the victims’ protection and well-being, this presents us with a valuable opportunity to clarify our true values and real interests as a university. We have the chance to prove to others, including the administration, that being a Penn Stater means more than just being a die-hard Nittany Lions fan. We have to show that, to us, being a part of Penn State means that we are part of an institution that is committed to leadership and service, and that what makes Penn State special is its sense of support and community, and that these things can be formed outside of parties and tailgates on football weekends.
When we find ourselves in a situation like last week, where the veil is lifted to reveal a scandal, I think it’s important to rethink our responses. What does it mean to state things like, “Despite everything that has happened, I am still proud to be a Nittany Lion!” or “I still love Joe Paterno!” It’s even worth considering what it means to say, “We Still Are Penn State,” for these messages imply that we hold the same commitments, same ideals, and same values that could have led the University’s administrators to do wrong. Or, if nothing else, they shift our negative judgments to the “few bad apples” by denying that we have any role in their poor decision-making processes. While this might make us feel better, as if we are able to disassociate ourselves from the administration that guides us, it only keeps us blind to how our loyalties might have actually fed into the systematic moral failures that we so desperately want to reproach.
Fortunately, if you don’t buy into utilitarian calculations and you think that there is no balancing act that would ever justify the cover-up of repeated sexual abuses against children, no matter how many people might be distraught and negatively affected if such a secret within the Penn State athletic department got out, then there is an alternative approach. I have in mind a response that places honesty, integrity, and justice above any name or image associated with Penn State and the Nittany Lions. If we as students truly value the well-being of victims over protecting the image of Penn State and football, then our responses this week should have been those that make it resoundingly clear that no matter how much good a person has done for the university that we love, we will not support them if they fail to do what is right. And that is because, no matter how much we proudly and affectionately identify with a university, we will do so only if it holds itself, and everyone who is a part of it, to the highest moral standards.
So rather than rioting in the streets “in support of Joe Pa,” and rather than (or at least in addition to) channeling efforts to form counter-demonstrations “in support of the victims,” we should look to the heart of the problem, which is the unethical privileging of the interest of the university over the interests of individuals who have been harmed. And rather than reiterating our loyalty to an institution that is clearly capable of committing heinous wrongs by stating “We Still Are Penn State,” we as students should take a moment to reflect on the situation and all of the complexities that it entails. We must find ways to prove to the current administration that immoral decisions should never be made in our name, and that nothing is more important to us than our ability to trust in their ethical, admirable, and respectable leadership.
To make these points, we probably should have rallied at Old Main over the first weekend when the news of the scandal became public. We should have supported the decisions of the Board of Trustees to dismiss everyone whose failures to report and intervene made them complicit in the crimes. We should still be encouraging the Board to take further action against those who have not been dismissed and whose legal fees will be paid by money from our tuition. And one of the most powerful public demonstrations that Penn State students could have done to really make the point that we stand for what is right above all else, including the prestige and money and culture that is generated by Penn State football, would have been to boycott the last home game.
I started by saying that, despite all of the events that occurred at Penn State over the past week, very little has changed. And that’s because Penn State students have continued to do what they’ve always been really good at–getting thousands of people together to make a point. They did so in the from of a riot in the streets, at the stadium in blue to cheer on our football team, and at Old Main to honor victims. The problem, however, is that none of the collective action was directly targeted at the University itself or the powers that be. And very few have taken the time to call their loyalties into question. When we say, “We Still Are Penn State,” this does not do enough to make it absolutely clear that we demand moral integrity as a university. And it doesn’t evidence that we do not love our alma mater unconditionally.
Here’s a video that I did that highlights “other” ethical issues in the Sandusky scandal at Penn State.