The awful Penn State story of child sex-abuse left many of us numb initially. But as we come to grips with the betrayals, there are lots of lessons to be be learned. Here are five that I am pondering.
While individual perpetrators bear primary responsibility, systems are complicit. In instances of wrong-doing like this the focus falls on an individual, in this case former coach Jerry Sandusky. But someone like Sandusky has been tolerated, enabled, and even protected by an entire social system, in this case the complex and far-reaching system of Penn State athletics.
Sports is overated in American culture generally and for kids particularly. I like sports. I played on teams in high school and college and occasionally as an adult. They have their place, but in American society today the place and importance of sports has become too big, much too big.
Great longevity in positions of great power is dangerous. Joe Paterno had been at the helm of Penn State football for a long time, too long. He was surrounded by coaches who also enjoyed long tenures. While there is something to be said for long service and continuity, there is also such a thing as “too long.”
Family is an overused metaphor. All sorts of clubs, churches, and even businesses speak of themselves, these days, as “families.” When I changed banks recently I was welcomed to my new bank’s “family of satisfied customers.” I imagine Penn State used similar language to speak of itself and its athletic programs, welcoming students to “the Penn State family.”
Disillusionment is a tough thing, but not the worst thing that can happen to you. I imagine that a lot of people these days are feeling disillusioned and sad about Penn State, its football program and Joe Paterno. We all get disillusioned at times and with different people and things. Sometimes we make “disillusionment” an excuse. “I’m disillusioned, so I don’t vote.” “I am disillusioned with the church, so I don’t go anymore.”
This is not to say that everyone who is in any way part of Penn State athletics is at fault or to blame. I’m sure there were many associated with the school’s sports program who truly didn’t know anything of Sandusky’s abuse but now find themselves both appalled and tainted. They too are, in some sense, victims. But many who had the power to make a difference did know something wasn’t right and looked the other way, or simply failed to pay sufficient attention.
This kind of tacit tolerance and support for wrong-doing while common to cases of sexual abuse is not limited to them. It occurs when power is abused and misused in other ways as well. When bullies are allowed free rein whether on a playground or in an office, or when bad actors are not held accountable for their actions in a family or on Wall Street, a system is complicit. While Sandusky and others will be tried on criminal charges, the systems, the groups and institutions of which he was a part, need to take a hard look at themselves. In a real sense, and as Christian faith teaches, all of us need to take such a hard look at ourselves for our own part in the evils we deplore.
When journalist and Kennedy biographer, Chris Matthews, spoke in Seattle a week ago he argued that JFK was actually fortunate to be a sickly kid. This was a blessing-in-disguise, according to Matthews, because Kennedy was unable to play sports and instead became a reader. As a child and youth, Kennedy read widely and deeply, developing his base of knowledge and capacity to think. As an aside, Matthews commented, “Sports for kids is overrated.”
The importance of sports for kids is of course a reflection of the larger society (see point 1.) and of who and what gets the spotlight and money. But sports has taken on a value and importance in our society and in the lives of children that is seldom examined or questioned. Certainly there is a place for physical development and skills, and there are important lessons to be learned from being part of a team. But sports is one aspect of life, not life itself. Intellectual, social, artistic, spiritual and moral development are at least as important, and really more so. An old saw warns against “majoring in the minors.” Sports is a minor not a major. That it has taken on such great importance is one sign that our priorities are out of joint.
Many argued last week that Paterno’s power at Penn State was far greater than that of his boss on the org chart, the Athletic Director, and greater even than that of the University President or its Board of Trustees. I don’t doubt it for a minute. While not all of that accrued power was due to longevity (see points 1 and 2), the years had something to do with it.
The overall longevity of Paterno and his staff meant that there wasn’t enough new blood in the system and there weren’t enough fresh eyes on the program and its operations. Longevity often means that personalities trump norms and standards.
For much of my life I was the pastor of religious congregations. In one of my longer tenured positions, I realized at one point and to my horror that I could say, “This is the way we do it here,” and get away with it. At that point, I got out. That kind of power is dangerous. It is also comforting. It allows people to not think or ask questions. Organizations where the same people have been in power for a long time tend to become ingrown and inhospitable to new people and ideas.
When groups talk this way they are trying to say that they affirm strong ties and care about individuals; that they are like a family. The trouble with that comparison is that nothing is like a family, not really. There’s an old expression, “You can choose your friends, but not your family.” When “family” is applied to things that aren’t family we get confused about the nature of the relationship and our responsibilities.
Cate Barron editor at the Patriot-News, a newspaper covering Central Pennslyvania, and one that has conducted a five-year court battle to get Joe Paterno’s salary figure made public, commented, "When you go to Penn State, you are in their family, and it’s this very intense thing, partly because it’s so isolated.”
But to be “disillusioned” means trading your illusions for the truth, which may be a hard thing, but is never a bad thing. Joe Paterno is not God. Neither Penn State nor any other college or university is above reproach or question. Neither college football nor sports are the most important things in the world. These are illusions. You’re better off, we’re better off, without them. It’s what you do after you’ve been disillusioned that matters.