Sunday, July 15, 2012

Our Penn States

If the reactions over Penn State's fate following the release of the Freeh report this week are any indicator, Penn State University should lose its football program, Joe Paterno should have his statue removed, and the university itself should face endless punishment for all of its misdeeds.

I am not going to defend Joe Paterno and Penn State.  I have not regularly followed sports in years and purposely ignore college sports as much as the pros.  And no, I have never attended Penn State University.  All of the aforementioned notwithstanding, while Joe Paterno's memory is going to be rightfully marred by this scandal and crime of omission, the real problem goes much deeper than Penn State University.  If you looked at Happy Valley before this scandal, it was probably the last place that you would ever anticipate a child sex scandal.  In 46 years of coaching, Paterno did not incur a single NCAA investigation, never mind sanctions, won over 70% of his games, won multiple national championships, had the highest graduation rate of any top 25 division I-A college football program.  Compare that to all of the investigations and misdeeds in places like USC, University of Miami, Ohio State, and just about every SEC school (arguably the most corrupt conference in college sports).

For all of those people calling for Penn State's head, ask yourself, could you imagine this happening at your favorite big school that you go crazy for come college football season?  The University of Miami had boosters paying for prostitutes and strippers for its players, has had more than one of its players killed while on the team, and has a system so corrupt the university's president is at a loss to try to reform it.  In that environment, I would dare say there are many budding Penn States out there.  Consider that according to sociological studies about one out of six people in this society experience some form of childhood sexual abuse, and 90% of those cases are committed not by strangers but family members, neighbors, and friends of the family.  That is exactly what Jerry Sandusky was to those children he sexually abused (a father figure in the minds of many single moms who allowed this man to have access to their sons).

Many years ago, when I was a youngster (OK, 19), I worked many hourly wage slave jobs.  In those days, I usually worked two or three jobs just to pay the bills, and it was not much (barely above minimum wage).  My night job was at a convenient store in a high crime area of my hometown, by myself.  The cops would come in at least once a week and show me pictures of people wanted by the police and who were last seen in the area. Basically, all I had to defend myself with was a two dollar bill in a cash register, and a hope that the police would get there before anything happened.  Needless to say, it was not a pleasant job.

Anyway, in those third shift hours, while waiting to get possibly robbed by a practitioner of our Second Amendment, there was an old time cop who would stop by, sit down, have a cup of coffee, and talk with me.  He was a nice enough fellow, looked to be in his late 50s, and talked to me about what it was like being a beat cop.  He mentioned how the worst aspect of his job were 'the domestics,' where he would have to answer calls from (usually) wives and girlfriends and children being abused by the men of the house.  What was most poignant to him in his young days as a cop is that he would answer these calls, see the marks of obvious beatings, and not being able to do anything because of the unwillingness of the victim to press charges.  'The family.  The family!'  That is all he would say about such occurrences, but he did not need to elaborate.  I understood even then what he meant.  They used to call it 'keeping it in the family,' as a means to rationalize the abuser and prevent punishment, separation, or help for a victim (even children).

The most depressing part of the Sandusky case, outside of the crimes he committed, is how much it is treated as an outlier within the institutions caught in the vortex of these scandals, but how it is treated is the reason why so few abusers are ever punished in this society.  What happened at Penn State is not that unusual, sadly.  It happens all of the time.  In most cases, it is a step-father, brother, uncle, or neighbor, and the veneer of the family (like the cult status that college football has at many universities) is the cover for which no charge can ever be made outside of the institution's walls.  That wall of silence has existed since time immemorial and is in virtually every society on this planet.  The only way we are going to break down those walls is not just to talk about Penn State, but for people to talk about their own lives and openly express the same disdain when such acts are committed against them by trusted authority figures.

Jerry Sandusky's crimes have had an impact in that regard.  We now know about sportswriter Bill Conlin's abuse of his nieces after they stepped forward, in part because of what happened at Penn State.  Sandusky's own son, at trial, finally testified, to the prosecutors, media, and his family, revealing that his stepfather's behavior was not isolated to the children outside of his immediate family.  That is what we really need more than anything else, to break down those last walls and force us as a society, as a polity, to confront ourselves as stridently as a Penn State football coach.