Thursday, July 12, 2012

Penn State, Sports, and the Truth

While digesting the coverage of the Louis Freeh Report, which pretty damningly faults Joe Paterno, PSU President Graham Spanier, AD Tim Curley, and VP Gary Schultz for their role in covering up the heinous crimes of Jerry Sandusky, a thought occurred to me: is the Penn State scandal/coverup a "sports" story anymore?

Certainly, it's getting covered by major sports outlets - most of the coverage I read today was on Deadspin and ESPN, though major news outlets weighed in as well. A football coach at a major American sports institution ensnared and raped children, repeatedly, and his boss, a legend and supposedly a beacon of all that is right about "sport" did not take the proper measures to put an end to it. The Freeh report (and I'm going mainly off summaries, as I have not read its nearly 300 pages) paints the picture of an institution-wide deference to Mr. Paterno and a top-down system overly concerned with upholding its own glowing image, to the point that the key players lost all sight of morality or reality. In failing to protect children from Sandusky, Freeh writes there was "a striking lack of empathy for child abuse victims by the most senior leaders of the University."

What we have here is fundamentalism, pure and simple. It's no secret that child sex abuse has dogged the Catholic Church, which operated with an equally stunning lack of empathy for victims in protecting its own. The New York Times recently reported on the same happening in the utlra-Orthodox Jewish community. These abuses are always allowed to flourish because somewhere along the line, people either don't listen to the victims or refuse to, in deference to the institution. Blame Paterno's cult of personality, blame the image of Penn State, or blame the very idea of the NCAA, but this is the exact same scenario, and again, these men were criminally negligent.

I don't think this is a sports story, not anymore. If we're headed for a cultural reckoning with college athletics' function in society, then it will become a sports story again, but I don't think we're at that point right now. Maybe we should be, but we're not. To ask what's next for Penn State football or Penn State itself, and I've seen those questions thrown around, entirely misses the point of this investigation.

This is a story, first and foremost, about people, about abused children (no longer children) who are finally getting some semblance of justice. Not real justice, not really anything approaching it, but someone is finally listening to them. Sandusky preyed on children who needed father figures, who needed someone to listen to them, and he destroyed that trust. When some of these kids sought help, not an easy thing to do because Sandusky was such a master manipulator, people who should have listened didn't. Nothing has repaired that trust, but maybe seeing Sandusky incarcerated and Penn State actually investigated will be a start.

This is a story about cyclical abuse and complicit cover-ups. It's a story of supposedly moral men obfuscating and justifying, prioritizing the comfort and reputation of a child rapist over the safety of children. It's a story of a monster hiding in plain sight, as Sandusky the great deceiver himself did, and the strategy of the Penn State administration when confronted with these repeated allegations. This is a story about a community betrayed. 

The usual sports spin would ask about what this means for Joe Paterno's legacy (a topic which I've written about before) or Penn State football's future, but those questions are for another day. It's a sports story, but it's also not.

This is a story about the truth, and the power of simply being willing to hear it.

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