If there was any doubt before, the damning findings of an independent investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh have pretty much erased them: High-ranking officials and football coaches at Pennsylvania State University failed to take adequate action that likely would have stopped assistant football coach and now-convicted child rapist Jerry Sandusky from using university facilities to lure and sexually abuse young boys.
And on Monday, the NCAA lowered the boom on Penn State’s football program, imposing a $60 million fine, a 4-year ban on postseason play, and a 4-year reduction in football scholarships, as well as erasing from the record books all the wins under head coach Joe Paterno dating back to the time the university was first made aware of the abuse in 1998.
Cynics and idealists
Those of us who are cynical toward institutions and who question the culture of big-time college football might well be feeling a bit smug right now. We can only wonder if the Penn State students who cried during the NCAA’s announcement of sanctions shed any tears for the victims of Sandusky’s abuse. And we can only shake our heads as Penn State football supporters express their objections to the removal of the Joe Paterno statue in front of the football stadium.
And yet…I get it, and not only because I happen to be a football fan. Deep down, most of us want to believe in great institutions, people, and causes that connect us to something larger than our individual lives. It can be devastating when those revered entities are shown to be something much less than what we imagined. (Even we cynics are mostly disappointed idealists, right?)
With Penn State, it was all about believing that a major college football program could win with integrity. Joe Paterno was the glue holding it all together. And for a long time, it was a mythology that appeared to hold up against the light of reality. It took this one horrible secret to crumble the foundation.
I witnessed a much more crushing example of this dynamic when Boston became the epicenter of the priest child rape scandal in the Catholic Church. The defensive reactions of many Church leaders and parishioners were very similar to those of Penn State’s devoted believers.
It comes down to this
No, I’m not equating football and God, though it seems that some Americans build their fall weekends around both!
Rather, I’m saying that the goodness of our iconic institutions boils down to ethical leadership, in secular and non-secular settings alike. It places a huge responsibility on the shoulders of leaders to be sound stewards of the entities they have been entrusted to guide and direct. And it places a similar obligation on other institutional stakeholders to insist upon accountability and integrity, and not just to bask in the reflected glow.
July 25, 2012 addendum
Kristin Rawls, a former Penn State graduate student and instructor, suggests in this Huffington Post blog piece that an overall culture of “abuse, corruption, and silence” permeates the university. Her account is a powerful one, detailing instances of racial harassment, sexual harassment and abuse, and institutional indifference. (Hat tip to Lisa Smith.)