I graduated from Penn State in the late ’70s when Joe Paterno was the head football coach, however I never went to a single game. I know…I must have been some kind of nerd, but I attended a high school that did not have football, (the now defunct Immaculate Conception High School in Washington, Pa.), and therefore I never really caught the bug. My Saturday afternoons at Penn State were spent in Patee Library working in the Reserve Reading Room. Of course football Saturdays meant that a skeleton crew and a few international students occupied the almost crypt-like structure. I don’t believe Joe Paterno had yet ascended to god-like status at that time; his national championships did not come till 1982, and 1986. I believe during my tenure at Penn State he was still a mere mortal.
During this very sad week I recalled a particular event that occurred during my Penn State days, as I watched the biggest sports scandal of the century unfold. I worked at the library with Jane Watrel, the daughter of the then Slippery Rock State College president, and committed one of my many faux pas (you truly cannot make this stuff up). I had just finished reading the newspaper, and as I folded it to put it back in its holder, I exclaimed to my co-worker (whose last name had somehow escaped my notice), “Jane, did you see this? I can’t believe the president of Slippery Rock has been fired! I used to go to school there!” Jane however could top that; after an awkward second or two she responded: “That is my father.” No physical slap in the face could have stung as hard as the embarrassment I felt upon upsetting my co-worker in such an insensitive, yet un-malicious way. I recall stammering about how I was sorry…that I did not know, (as I quickly looked at her name tag and quickly connected the dots while cursing my own stupidity), and that I wondered what really happened. There is really no gracious comeback for these type of situations, unless you have “Well I am sure it is all just a huge misunderstanding” at the ready at all times and can roll it off your tongue with no thought. Sadly I do (and did) not.
Fast forward to 2011, some 36 years later, and once again, I am reading that the college president of a school I attended (and graduated from) had been fired. Never would I imagine reading such a headline back in my Penn State days. As I followed the story, I initially went from shock, to disgust at the actions of Jerry Sandusky, but kept my admiration of Joe Paterno intact. I did not have trouble believing that a pedophile had molested boys, but I would not let myself believe that Joe Paterno had any culpability in the matter. However as the week wore one, this non-football fan who was nonetheless a very strong Joe Pa admirer began to read and hear things that stretched credulity. And while I am hoping that somehow even a tiny bit of what happened in terms of Joe Pa’s involvement is a huge misunderstanding, the questions I have deserve answers, and are questions that anyone would have.
The biggest question I have is how did close colleagues not know what Sandusky was up to, or more to the point, did they try not to know? Trying not to know something is a good indicator that you actually do know, or at least strongly suspect. With such a huge risk of harm to these young boys, why did none of the other coaches or staff, these leaders of men if you will, step forward and say someone needs to do something? I mean let’s face it…when someone is told that they have to surrender their keys, and that they are not permitted to shower with young boys anymore, isn’t that a big enough red flag? It seems that the Penn State leaders should, at the very least, be charged with being criminally un-curious. I would love to know how that order was communicated to the coaching staff:
Any other important business?
Ah, yes, one brief item. Jerry Sandusky is no longer permitted to shower with young boys in our locker rooms.
It’s not a big deal. We just feel it would be better if he no longer did that. Nothing to concern yourselves with. Any questions?
No, we’re good.
Ok then, meeting adjourned.
In an old Seinfeld episode George Costanza was being fired for having sex in his office one night with the cleaning woman. George pretends that he had no idea that doing so was inappropriate.
George: Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I tell ya I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon…you know because I’ve worked in a lot of offices and ha ha ha people do that all the time.
Mr. Lippman: You’re fired.
The reason that episode, and particulary George’s character is so funny, is because it takes a lot of hubris to lie that well. While we laugh at George Constanza, we don’t think that it’s funny for real-life adults, be they legends or janitors, to behave as if they really don’t know what to do in terms of obvious right and wrong situations.
While it is clear that Sandusky did not seem to think that molesting young boys who were entrusted to his care was wrong, it is shocking that none of the coaches, staff, or administration of Penn State thought that not reporting it to the police was ok. Apparently they were so…uncaring…unfeeling…lazy…callous…clueless…(you fill in the blank) about the possibility of Sandusky being a serial pedophile, that they felt that the matter did not warrant their full and zealous attention. It is as if everyone decided to protect their jobs, the program, and Joe Paterno’s reputation as a stand up guy over protecting the young victims.
It brings to mind that ambitious British colonel in the movie The Bridge On the River Kwai who was charged with helping the Japanese construct a railway bridge with his fellow prisoners. In the beginning the colonel wanted to sabotage the bridge, but then came up with the idea of showcasing the Brits’ ability to build the finest structure ever. The bridge eventually became an obsession with Colonel Nicholson, and a monument to himself. In the end when the Allied forces are detected trying to blow up Colonel Nicholson’s precious bridge, he tries to sabotage his own side, and protect the bridge, rather than remain true to his oath as a British soldier. In building his bridge the colonel had lost sight of why he was in the war in the first place. He lost his commitment to making the world a safer place, and instead opted to building a monument to his own glory.
So for those in leadership with young people, I have compiled a brief guidebook to assist you with the tough questions you may be faced with. Read carefully because apparently this IS rocket science for some people. I will try to make it as simple as I can.
Rule 1: If you see anyone harming a child, run to help that child, and then call the police.
That’s all. Just one rule. This rule would cover witnessing someone shouting at a child, hitting a child, showering with a child, and for those at Penn State who did not know this, raping a child. And if you cannot follow Rule 1 because you are worried about losing your job, or losing your football tickets, then that should be your sign that like Colonel Nicholson, you too have lost your way.