Our social media has developed an infrastructure that allows the push of a button to send news and not-so-news racing across wires, cables and fibers into the lives of an entire world. As in the case of the Penn State University (PSU) story, that news can sometimes force many of those lives to share an instant sickness.
When the story first reached me, I thought it was another story about an adult that should be trusted preying on an innocent child that should be able to safely follow their instinct to trust. I worked many years with underprivileged kids, so from that angle, this was a familiar story. Jerry Sandusky just gave us another name and face to put with the stories of those who abuse thousands of kids in our country’s homes, schools and communities each and every day. As a father of two young boys, this story was a reminder, not enlightenment.
As the story unfolded, though, what did become news to me is the number of people who knew about the abuse, but did nothing to protect the kids. As many abused children as I have worked with, I have worked with far more adults who would trample you on their way to saving those children and bringing justice to the abuser. True, many of those adults were trained to deal with abuse cases, but it always appeared to me their passion for protecting those kids came from the same passion this father has for protecting his children at all cost.
I didn’t spend much time trying to understand how Jerry Sandusky could do the heinous things to little boys he is alleged to have done. I learned long ago that there are adults in the world like Jerry Sandusky who have an illness that I can no more understand than cancer or aids. We find their sickness more disturbing because they seemingly volunteer for the illness, and their symptoms play out in the destruction of children’s lives instead of their own.
I did find myself, though, trying to understand those who were presumably not sick. The ones who at some level knew that children were in danger and did too little to stop it.
How does a young graduate assistant come upon this scene and not bring a sudden end to a young child’s nightmare. If only a temporary end. How does he tell his dad and then his boss about what he had seen, and then move on with life as if he had placed a check inside a box on a to-do list?
How does a 75 year old coaching legend, with the wisdom of all his years of teaching and the love and affection for his own 5 children and 17 grandchildren to draw from, decide that once he had passed on what he had heard from the graduate assistant, the incident was over? He treated it like a Nittany Lion football scrimmage – an obligation, but not really worth the effort of determining who won or lost.
The message proceeded to the AD and then the university President. As if playing a sick version of the children’s telephone game, they all whispered into a cup attached to a string and trusted some version of the truth would come out on the other end. Then they sat their cups down and walked away. It now seems impossible to determine how many people were holding cups, or what kind of message they heard and relayed, or to whom.
One thing is for sure. The police didn’t get a cup. It’s hard to imagine, outside of an agreement between all of those who did get cups, how the police could have been left out?
So why? Why would highly educated and otherwise intelligent men decide it was necessary to keep the police out of it? What could they find so worth protecting that children would be knowingly sacrificed and thrown into the den of a pedophile instead of alerting the one group of people who could save them?
That answer is quite simple: college football.
Joe Paterno has spent what is nearly a decade since learning of this incident chasing the top spot on college football’s coaching victories list. Last week, a week before his termination, he ascended to that spot. He reached the pinnacle of college coaches when it comes to winning football games.
Then, there is Graham Spanier, PSU President, who also served as chairman of the Bowl Championship Series presidential oversight committee until his sudden termination from PSU. He has long been an outspoken opponent of changing the BCS system that, coincidentally, pours millions of dollars into the major conference schools and schools - like PSU.
These two guys, and so many others associated with PSU, were bound together by the thread of prominence the school held in the world of college football. If something, or some secret, were to cut that thread, they would instantly join Tiger Woods in a historic freefall from greatness. And away they fall.
I am reminded of what I wrote about Tiger Woods when his troubles first became public. We have no responsibility for what these folks do once they are at the top of the mountain, but we are responsible for building these mountains that allow common men to foolishly think they stand above others.
ESPN will pay 150 million dollars this January to telecast 5 BCS football games. That’s 30 million dollars a game that will be split among a few elite conferences and teams – the Penn States, Ohio States, Miamis and Auburns of the world (many of you will recognize these teams as schools who have had major scandals rock their programs this year). ESPN makes this investment on the rightful assumption that a majority of the 98 million homes they are in will have their televisions tuned to these football games. Sponsors buy time based on the same assumption.
Like the case is so many times, the mountain is money. And we, the college football fans, build that mountain.
I am as big a college football fan as anyone. I have helped build that mountain. I don’t hold myself responsible for the behavior of anyone at PSU, but I do hold myself responsible for helping to create a monster that these guys decided was too big to fail.
I have made a decision that this college bowl season, I won’t be watching. Not one bowl game. When the bowl season begins, my college football season will be over.
When I first considered this, I thought, wow, that would be hard, especially when it came to tuning out the bowl that invited my Fighting Irish. Then I thought of Penn State, and the officials who, for at least a moment, considered life without football at the level they were accustomed to, and decided they couldn’t stand for that. They ended up tuning into football and not the safety of little boys.
I’m not sure what I’ll do with that short life without football. I imagine I’ll spend that time looking after our boys.
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