The Shame of Penn State

The Shame of Penn State

There are many things in this world that are sad, and there are some things that are sadder than others. But within that hierarchy, there is nothing sadder, in my humble opinion, than the willful abuse of children. When those who are least able to defend themselves physically and emotionally are allegedly subjected to the most horrific kind of victimization, then we intuitively know that we have reached the bottom of the barrel of human behavior. No child should have to suffer that indignity, and live with that shame and psychic pain.

But actually, there is something even sadder, and even more depraved. If adults who learn of the abuse are in a position to help the child or children who are being abused, but choose do nothing- or, even worse, they pretend that the abuser’s alleged crime does not rise to the level of an immediate response commensurate to the crime- well, that’s even worse. That’s when words become inadequate to express exactly how sick we can feel at the moral mediocrity that too often passes for adult behavior.

The story that broke this week in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania- the most unfortunately named home of the legendary Nittany Lions of Penn State’s college football program- is well beyond the parameters of a sad story. The failure of the Penn State athletic director and his immediate academic superior to report the criminally abusive activities of famed Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky to the police once they became aware of them is, to say the very least, inexcusable. It is the worst kind of example of how lucrative, big-time college athletic programs can completely eclipse any credible sense of right and wrong, or moral and immoral. Not wanting to do anything to jeopardize the financial juggernaut that is Penn State athletics, they chose to do what far too many Catholic bishops have done. In the face of a horrifying reality that should have filled them with righteous indignation and a furious anger, they turned their heads away, and they turned their backs on the children who were being abused. There is no punishment severe enough for them.
Joe Paterno has been the coach of the Nittany Lions for almost five decades. He is Penn State football. When Penn State was winning national championships, he and Jerry Sandusky were inseparable partners on and off the field. They were revered for their football genius, and widely respected for the values that they were ostensibly imparting to the students they worked with and the community at large.

As far back as 2002, when a graduate assistant happened upon Sandusky allegedly engaged in anal sex with an under-age boy in the showers of the football building, the campus police conducted an investigation and wrote a detailed report about the incident. It was 30 pages long. It never reached the police, or any authorities outside of the campus. Joe Paterno claims not to have been aware of the investigation.

To say that this strains credulity is to dramatically understate the case. Joe Paterno is a god on the Penn State campus where he lives. There is nothing that goes on there related to football that he does not or did not know about. Joe Paterno didn’t know about Jerry Sandursky’s thing for young boys? Joe Paterno didn’t know that Sandusky’s charitable organization, the Second Mile Foundation, was nothing more than an alleged recruiting ground for eligible young victims? Please…

The Board of Trustees of Penn State came to its senses last night and fired Paterno, adding him to the list of those whose association with this sordid business threatens to take the university down with them. From my perspective- as a parent, a sports fan, and certainly not least of all as a rabbi- the Board acted in a way that it should have acted years ago, and shame of the students who rioted last night to convey their dismay at the “tarnishing of Coach Paterno’s legacy.”

What legacy? Of doing nothing to stop the alleged systematic violation of young boys by a trusted community figure, and a sports god? Of refusing to report allegations of a heinous crime to the police in order to maintain the image and program of Penn State football?

Really, what legacy?

No matter the religion or the institution, there is no context that justifies what has allegedly gone on for years at Penn State. The only important question is why it took so long for the school to respond appropriately. That question will be answered in court, I’m sure, and there will be millions upon millions of dollars of settlement involved. But there is no “settlement” for a kid who was pinned against the wall of a Penn State locker room shower and allegedly raped by a trusted football coach.

Who’s worrying about the children?

Joe Paterno told people to “pray for the children.” My prayer for the children is that they be kept far away from people like him and his ilk. Like I said, there is nothing sadder.

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