The Penn State sexual abuse scandal: When iconic institutions fail us

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.


Related post

Penn State’s football program and university leadership: Signs of ethical collapse? (November 2011)

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.)

8 responses

  1. I must weigh in on this one because it hits close to home. One of the definitions of rape is the violent destructive or abusive treatment of something or someone. sexual rape of course is horrible and tragic. These institutions are always about money when it comes to turning a blind eye to something that shold have been stopped way before it ever got this far. Workplace bullying sort of fits the rape definition in some ways, violent treatment, destructive treatment of someone, traumatic injury to someone. The agency i was bullied by turned a blind eye and when i went to the board for help, they said sorry we know it is happening but learn to live with it, she is a good fund raiser we are not doing anything to her!!! This Woman basked in the reflective glow and took credit for all of my accomplishments too. This is what happens with bullies in the workplace, it is all about them and what benefits them and makes them look good. What Sandusky did to these kids is a form of bullying too, only extreme and severe in the worst form. I think Penn State got just what they deserve and i would hope other corporations and institutions that turn a blind eye to destructive and immoral behavior will recognize that they might be next to get spanked with a multi million dollar fine. I think that is where you have to hit them before they stop!!!!!!!!!

  2. I struggle to find something so compelling to say…anything that will reiterate what was so eloquently written within the post. I am finding that as I post to these various boards while waiting, hoping and praying for progress that will come in the news that finally lawmakers have passed the Healthy Workplace Bills so that I might begin to feel somewhat safer to re-enter the workforce that I loved and excelled within, I am running out of things to say. Re-entry is inevitable as I have children, but it is not safe nor healthy currently.

    I have seen and experienced this very similar situation at work. Monsters are what I consider the persons in place to lead this large corporation where I was first menaced, provoked, harassed and then invaded horrifically and thus then menaced more and abused in blatant and broad daylight open conduct. The environment was pervasively toxic and nearly out of control. This because there was a complete lack of civility, boundaries nor adequate leadership.

    Looking at the faces of those who covered the heinous abuse going on at Penn state, I see the same faces of those who I sought help from within my workplace and they were able to do nothing and thus nothing is what they did.They covered and ultimately retaliated against me, a well known ethical, and extremely consistently productive and kind employee. I’d previously cooperated and existed within a known toxic environment quietly until it was so out of control that finally I utilized their glorified corporate policy and protections, only to find that it was a lie and a facade. There are no protections and that policy is junk. It is a different reality and a different life altogether when you realize that there are no protections or safety at work for pervasively abusive environments. No checks and balances. Plenty willing to cover…absolutely no ethics.


    • PTSD shock: I feel your pain and as i read your story my blood curdles and my heart races for I have been there and i too have PTSD as a result of exactly the type of behavior you speak of.It is prevalent, it is mighty, it is powerful, it is ongoing, it is ugly, it is painful,it is destructful it is traumatic and emotionally harmful, it is financially devastating, it is unethical, it is humiliating, it is harmful to the family, it is wrong and much more!!!!!! Like you and,i say it again the organization that bullied me turned a blind eye and allowed these heinous acts of violence to prevail until i became ill. The laws are coming and soon i hope. Hang in there. We all have a right to work in a non violent , and healthy workplace, unfortunately not all workplaces are professional even in these modern times. We can spend a trillion dollars to do nothing in Iraq and we can spend billions yearly on the space program, but we cannot fix this or the healthcare crisis. This world is gone mad and i am afraid it may never really get better. Politcians have lied too many times and promised change only to eat up 8 years at a time doing nothing, setting us back and lining their own pockets while we suffer, think about it for a minute, have we really moved forward since Reagan left office? And i do not claim to be republican or democrat, i can just see who helped and who didint!!!!

  3. It was horrible learning that pedophiles exist. It’s been harder accepting that “normal” people will sacrifice children to protect a pedophile

    It was horrible learning that psychopaths exist. It’s been harder accepting that “normal” people will sacrifice good employees to protect a psychopath.

    We expect pedophiles and psychopaths to be depraved, but when “normal” people don’t do the right thing, it is scary and isolating.

    We must remember that there will always be people who will speak up, take chances, and risk isolation to do the right thing. They deserve our support.

  4. As bad as what Sandusky did actually is, your phrase iconic institution is troubling and likely reflects the overall demise of colleges and universities. It is no secret that the USA now trails other countries in educational achievements ( There are concrete reasons for these failures and the universities protect these failures. Anyone who has been to the ego towers that comprise today’s colleges has horrible stories to share of problems in education. These institutions have NOT been iconic now for several decades. This is a simple fact but all too true — endless numbers of examples. The problem in PA is but one more indication, albeit a very deplorable indication.

    Education is in trouble and was long before Sandusky. He is just the poster child. We need to address this problem and yet NOTHING is on the horizon to improve education. All teachers only learn course content and never are taught how to teach! Yet we know how to teach and currently refuse to acknowledge these vastly improved processes. Instead we protect the so-called icons. How sad.

    A friend recently noted, “You do not graduate from college, you survive and get a degree.” Sandusky well recognized the power of football over teaching and put it to work diminishing young boys. He was well protected.

    The time has come to declare education important and never again allow demagogue professors to rule especially those who trash teaching over their own egos. We can rise if we choose. We see all too well what colleges and universities choose and see they choose poorly.

    • Thanks for your comment. I should clarify that I’m not using the term “iconic” solely in the context of academic institutions, but rather the phenomenon of how we worship institutions in general.

      Not sure how your comments about “demogogue professors” who “trash teaching” relate to the subject matter of the post, but I’d suggest there are a lot of dedicated professors at Penn State who care deeply about teaching and have been ambivalent, at best, about the role of football in the life of the university.

  5. Leaders, government, teachers can only do so much. In addition to teaching people to respect others, we must teach people to defend themselves physically, verbally, logically, emotionally, legally. All too often our children do not know the word “rape” or “harassment,” yet alone what to do about it.

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