Thursday, July 26, 2012

I Read the Freeh Report, and Other Stories

Those of you who make your home underneath large stones may have missed the media frenzy surrounding the conviction of Jerry Sandusky for multiple counts of child molestation, the subsequent report by Louis Freeh summarizing his investigation into how exactly something like this could have been concealed at Penn State for so long, and the sanctioning of Penn State by the NCAA. It's engaging because it involves sports, our national obsession, and because the crime is so horrendous that you instinctively recoil. It's almost impossible to be neutral about what Sandusky did; even if you discount the accusations of the victims who weren't involved in the case (his stepson, for instance, as well as additional victims who claim to have been molested during the '70s and '80s) the width and breadth of the crimes he committed demand response.

When the Freeh report was released, every news site in the country put out stories summarizing and characterizing what was in it, as news sites do when reports are published. They read it so we don't have to. Now, I have no claim to intellectual rigor. I like to think I take facts and evidence into account, but too often I'm content to let someone else's analysis and opinion about facts and evidence sway me, especially if it's someone I tend to agree with. So, when the Freeh report was released, I read it.

I didn't read the whole thing.  I skimmed the recommendations, because I'm not a Penn State board member and so what Louis Freeh thought they should do with his findings is not terribly germane to me. I also didn't read the appendices, which contained the primary sources Freeh went through to compile the report and which were cited in the body. I probably should have done this; although by reading the report I went beyond reading what someone thought about what Freeh wrote, I was still reading what Freeh thought about what he read instead of also reading what he read and drawing my own conclusions. Nevertheless, reading the body of the findings put me further ahead of the game than I normally am.

What stood out for me, apart from the fact that Paterno, Spanier, Schultz, and Curley let a serial pedophile molest boys on their campus for decades, was a footnote on pages 65 and 66 detailing examples of the massive influence of Paterno and his football program. Students who were sanctioned by the school never had their penalties reduced unless they were part of the football program, in which case their punishments were lessened or dropped. (The woman whose experience was summed up in the footnote, Vicky Triponey, was the subject of a profile which goes into the matter further.)

The young men who were involved in these incidents were done a disservice by their coach, Joe Paterno, and by the university personnel involved in those decisions. College faculty and staff have a number of responsibilities, all of them intertwined and none of them easy. They need to educate students, which involves bringing in and keeping qualified faculty. They need to make sure those students not only learn, but graduate, and that once they graduate, they get and maintain employment. They need to keep in contact with their alumni and foster good relations with them. They need to offer extracurricular activities. They need to provide a safe environment for all these things. They need to keep the lights on, and keep up with the latest technologies and teaching tools, and have an easily accessible and navigable library with a good supply of books and other archived materials. And so on, and so forth. But above all of these things, they need to be role models and good leaders, because you don't just learn how to do calculus from your math professor but also how to conduct yourself, how to think, how to navigate this world. And when your coach and your administrative staff are showing you that it doesn't matter how you behave in your daily life as long as you win football games, and that you'll be allowed to do whatever you want as long as you win football games, you won't learn how to be a good person and to treat others with respect. You'll learn that you don't have to follow the rules and that you don't have to consider other people.

And when your coach, your mentor, and the administrative staff of the university are covering up darker crimes than a couple of rowdy football players assaulting other students, when those men are involved in a decades-long cover up because they feared for their reputation, with no consideration for the victims or their families (note, from the report, the multiple attempts to let Sandusky know he should stop what he was doing, but no attempt to contact law enforcement or, more importantly, the victims or their parents), then you are learning the wrong lessons.

I'm not suggesting everyone who went to school at Penn State is a warped monster. Sandusky is, I think, a singular parasite, whose particular pathology had no genesis at the school he coached for (though it was given corners to prey in). And I even think Paterno passed along some good along with the implicit bad he was passing along with his behavior and his laser focus on winning football games. I don't hold the kids who graduated out of that program, and the kids that are there now, responsible for the failures of their leaders. Paterno said, of the Sandusky business, that it wasn't a football scandal, which is true in the sense that The Crucible is not a play about McCarthyism. The losing of the forest for the trees, however, is not a failure unique to football programs; it happens in any situation where the institution becomes more important than the ideals for which that institution was established, or more important than a sense of right and wrong. However, I, and a great many people, judging for how many were clamoring for the blood of the Penn State football program and for Paterno's statue to come down, find it far more respectable for a leader to take an action which might damage his or her institution's reputation for the sake of doing the right thing than for a leader to protect the image of said institution by letting shady doings continue. Paterno and the rest did more damage by keeping silent than they would have if they had spoken up in 1998 (or in 2001).

I don't hold the kids responsible for their leader's failures. However, the NCAA did. Everyone thought Penn State would get the so-called "death penalty," i.e. no football for a year (or possibly longer). What they ended up getting was much harsher, including voiding past victories, eliminating post-season games, scholarship reductions, and much more (in addition, the Big Ten conference barred Penn State from the tournament for the duration of the punishments). These last for four years. It's a devastating punishment, and it's a punishment that falls nearly wholly on the kids.

I understand the response. I absolutely do. Nothing than anyone can do can erase what Sandusky did. It's a long, hard road back to normalcy for those boys; their entire lives will be shaped by Sandusky's crimes. Those crimes could have been prevented, or curtailed, had someone at Penn State showed backbone or character. And we, here, in the year 2012, can't make sense of our powerlessness in the face of these crimes.

The NCAA had to act. I see that. But what they did went beyond the true perpetrators of the crime, Sandusky and his enablers. Is there anyone at Penn State who doesn't know that their past victories are tarnished? Is there any danger of them forgetting what happened? More to the point, is there any chance we will let them forget? Penn State's name is going to be synonymous with Sandusky's crimes for a very long time, and for the actual students of the university that's the only thing they should be suffering. There should be an examination of the influence of football and sports culture in general, and not just at Penn State; if you think that's the only school where winning sports teams are treated differently than the rest of the student body you are delusional.

The Penn State program didn't need to be burned to the ground. All that needed to happen is this. Anywhere on campus that where you could see a reference to a football victory (a sign, a banner, a trophy case) there should also be, in a place of equal visibility, a picture of Sandusky in handcuffs. I find the elimination of Penn State's victories from the record to be a touch Orwellian. For me it's more poetic if no one is allowed to forget what was being done in the name of victory. But none of that means that the young men and women now attending Penn State shouldn't be allowed to strive for honest victories, and to show they have more honor and character than the men who led them to this ruin.