We were Penn State, but who are we now?
Last week Louis Freeh, the former director of the FBI and head of a special investigation into the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University, released a report outlining his findings. The report’s findings are both chilling and shocking. For me, however, they are even more shocking because of my relationship with Penn State.
I am from Pennsylvania and spent my entire life growing up in the town of Carlisle, which is a few hours south of State College. Many of my relatives are Penn State alumni. My father attended graduate school at Penn State. Watching and cheering for Penn State football teams has been a constant of my, and my extended family’s, recreation. Penn State seemed like the institution that could not be corrupted by football. It seemed to have figured out how to balance high profile NCAA Division I athletics, especially football, with good academics and an unassailable moral compass. That image became irrevocably tainted after the scandal of child sexual abuse was uncovered, but until last week what was unclear was the role played by higher-ups in Penn State, especially Joe Paterno.
Whatever image Penn State had built of an institution that could successfully balance football with the mission of producing morally upright, educated citizens was shattered by the findings of the Freeh report. The report found, in summary, that:
Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University – President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President‐Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno – failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities. They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well‐being, especially by not attempting to determine the identity of the child who Sandusky assaulted in the Lasch Building in 2001. Further, they exposed this child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky, who was the only one who knew the child’s identity, of what McQueary saw in the shower on the night of February 9, 2001.
That people could engage in such behavior is almost beyond belief. That a group of such people would include Joe Paterno, a man who was revered throughout sports as the coach who managed to win without compromising morals and principles, is the worst kind of betrayal. The simple fact is that Joe Paterno lied. He lied right to our faces for nearly 14 years, and because of the reputation he had built as a man of honor and the vast sway he held in the internal politics of Penn State, we believed him.
The Freeh Report should serve as a testament to what happens to men who remain in positions of power, wealth, and influence for too long. We all wanted to believe that Penn State was special; it was a place that had figured out how to avoid being corrupted by sports. We were wrong. We failed to recognize that even good men like Joe Paterno can become corrupted by their own success to the point that they show such callous disregard for the welfare of a child. We told ourselves to silence the voice of cynicism that said that even Penn State was no different than any other major college with a nationally recognized football program, and we were wrong.
Now the question becomes where we go from here. Penn State’s Grand Experiment was a grand failure, and yet we find ourselves still mesmerized by the allure of college sports and willing, at least somewhat, to sacrifice a certain level of moral rectitude in exchange for the thrill and entertainment of the game. But is that appropriate? Clearly what happened at Penn State was due in no small part to our collective willingness to condone infractions in college sports if that meant being able to watch better athletes and more exciting games. Now we must reevaluate that attitude in the face of overwhelming evidence while trying to figure out how to move forward and rebuild something that we thought was beyond reproach.
I will travel home this Christmas to visit with family with the tradition of watching Penn State compete in a bowl game shattered. Even if Penn State is allowed to have a football program, which many people think it should not and which is largely dependent on how the NCAA chooses to punish the school, I doubt I will want to watch it. I will be reminded of nearly 30 years of watching a program headed by a man who spent almost half of that time covering up a a horrific child sex abuse scandal. I will wonder if, as he sat in the press box during games, whether Joe Paterno ever thought about the victims that the Freeh Report clearly shows he knew about. Ultimately I will try to reconcile what happened with my vision of a school that captured the imaginations of my classmates and me when we were in school. We dreamed of going to Penn State, playing football and being coached by Joe Paterno. Now the program and the man we idolized has been exposed for what it really was, and we are all left picking up the pieces.