The sexual abuse crisis at Penn State has reached another peak in the mountain range with the release of the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. That report answered many lingering questions regarding Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of children—who knew when, as well as how reports, rumors and allegations were handled. Perhaps the most disturbing element of the report had been hinted at in the press: the role that coach Joe Paterno played in the scandal, what he did and did not do.
Paterno’s role is the subject for another treatise, and I’m sure it will be, but I find myself focused on a larger picture: the culture and the dynamics of power that exist at Penn State and at every other large scale athletics program in this country. In an earlier essay in this space I referred to it as “The Locker Room Culture.” It is a space, this culture, where athletes’ brushes with crime, violence against women and sexual abuses are taken in and absorbed, nearly like a large anemone folding in on itself. The athlete, or in this case the coach, is welcomed back into the locker room, patted on the back and life goes on as usual. The outside world just doesn’t understand our values and the pressure we’re under, they mutter to themselves.
The Penn State scandal is not just based in an effort to avoid publicity; it is the revelation of a bureaucracy that fought to preserve itself as it is. This, you might say, is the function of a bureaucracy—to keep itself alive, to keep functioning and grow. Just like an animal, it must feed and it must maintain some kind of equilibrium so it can move and keep growing. If things change, we lose, the thinking goes. So the basis of horrible cover-up is fear.
I must say here that any crisis reveals a system and so it is doing now. The more we learn about the individual crimes of a football coach, the more we expose the system and the culture that supported the crime, the abuse and the secrecy that followed. The Penn State program will eventually be splayed out like a dressed deer, gutted and exposed so that all can see what made it tick, what lead to the behaviors.
This is what the leaders in College Station fought to avoid. In their minds, secrecy preserved the status quo. The fear is of exposure, the exposure leading to change and loss.
That this happened in such a venerable program, led by such a revered coach as JoePa, is shocking and sad and it only points out that such a culture of money, power and the drive to preserve those things exists at many of our institutions.
There is a very large amount of money flowing in and around college football. There is even an argument that universities and colleges abuse millions of young men on a regular basis by pumping up their football programs with television revenues while paying the young men nothing. But I digress.
There is little doubt in my mind that Graham Spanier is a fine man and a respected academic. But he made a fatal mistake in leadership and many people are suffering as a result. He gave in to the fear. He buckled in the face of the loss of money, reputation and legacies.
This is the heavy, awful responsibility of a leader: you must make the choices that you know in your heart are right, even when you believe that it will lead to the disintegration of the very organization you lead. You must. In my mind, there is no other way, for, as we have discovered, everything is exposed in the end. Eventually your secret is revealed. Look no farther than our churches.
Leaders in our colleges and universities must be divorced from the power, money and glamour that has become college sports and they must make very tough choices that deal with the cultures they have helped create, cultures that are all too often sexist, misogynist, violent and abusive. They must face the dragon.
At Penn State, the men whom the investigation has centered on have lost that chance. Their lives will never be the same, because they tried to deny the truth, a truth they knew in their hearts needed to be exposed. But we must not forget the scores of young wounded boys who also had their lives changed forever. They, not the administrators, are the reasons we must fully take on the locker room culture that hides, and thus encourages abuse of the vulnerable among us.