The Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Scandal and Sports Morality

by Jas Faulkner, senior correspondent

The Penn State scandal raises questions that go far beyond the scope of administrative responsibility and the particulars of defining culpability according to the letter of the law.   What is at issue is the moral responsibility of those who run athletic programs towards everyone whose life and livelihood are affected by the decisions they make.

Joe Paterno may very well have escaped any criminal charges by taking what amounts to covering his tuchis when the situation was brought to his attention.  Even as I write this, there are fans who feel that his age and record as a coach should be enough to absolve him of any moral responsibility to the children who were attacked by Jerry Sandusky.  What should be remembered is that these kids are not only victims of  Sandusky, but of every person at Penn who “discharged their responsibility” and then passed the situation to someone else.

Jerry Sandusky’s failing is innate.  Anyone who would sexually abuse a child is a horrible, rotten creature who has abdicated any resemblance to a functioning human being.   He is a vile simulacra of a homo sapien sapien who operates on an ethical model that does not take into consideration the wants and needs of anyone beyond the limits of his own skin.   Can we really expect better from such a monster?  Probably not.

But what of those who claim a higher moral ground?  Did Paterno, who has historically been above the vagaries sports rivalries, and Penn State, a program that has set the bar when it comes to being above the usual barking nonsense of intercollegiate trash talk,  really think it was okay to act in a way that demonstrated they considered the image of the program more important than the well-being of children?  What does this say about them and anyone who would let a monster walk among them in the interest of getting along? is one of many organisations in place for male victims of sexual abuse.

Two years ago, NHL alumnus Theoren Fleury disclosed that he was sexually abused by his coach while he was a junior league player.  The response was mixed. Within the hockey community, there was a reflexive circling of the wagons as people  began to look  askance at the mores regarding sexual assault against young men.  There was a contingent that blamed Fleury and those who would follow his lead by talking about the problem.

Unfortunately, this is a function of human nature.  My fellow anthropologists-by-training refer to this mental process as magical thinking.  There is the hope, however evil it may seem, that the victim somehow deserved what was done to them.  All it takes to not fall to a predator, get hurt, be a statistic, is to toe the line and perform the correct rituals in the right way.  We all know better and yet there is that primal urge to hope that this is somehow true.

Over the past two years,  those who work within the culture of hockey have seen the sport subjected to some hard hits  in both the literal and figurative sense.   So far the response to these crises has been moderately proactive in appearance.  Everyone asked the right questions.  What the hockey powers that be need to learn  from the horrific fall that the Penn State program has taken is that all of those good  thoughts and intentions arefollowed up by decisive actions.   Stating there is a problem is no longer enough.  We have seen cost of ignoring safety, mental health and youth welfare issues as they pertain to the game. The sum of the parts of this sport are better than the urge to let problems pass without action.  The cost if the profession does not act is too dear.


13 thoughts on “The Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Scandal and Sports Morality”

  1. My children were sexually abused by a teacher. My children were so strong and went through a five day trial testifying about the teachers behavior. He was found guilty. I experienced mass coverups with in the school district. I could not have been more proud of my children and ashamed of the adults responsible for their welfare. God bless those young men and their parents. Myself and my children will keep you in our prayers. Just remember you have done ;the right thing by sharing the truth.

    With the utmost respect,

    • Nancy, I am so sorry that your children went through that and am glad you and they had the courage to stand up to the system. Fear keeps many victims from speaking out.

      Nancy and Phyl, the lack of institutional support for victims and the “hands off” attitude taken by authority figures comes down to a sad case of people trying to avoid embarrassment. It also points to a serious case of character failure.

      As this story continues to unfold, I am sometimes heartened, sometimes disappointed by who is on the side of angels and who chooses another kind of alliance.

  2. Jas, what a great editorial! You are absolutely right; I’d never thought of the problem as magical thinking before, but that really helps to explain it. It’s akin to the “if I ignore it, it will go away” mentality that many people have. Not to mention businesses and other institutions.

    • The concept of “magical thinking” gained some pop currency in the mid-nineties when social scientists noticed it was applied by some reporters and people in public safety education in response to the rash of carjackings that were all over the news at the time.

      From an evolutionary standpoint, we are, as a species, pretty effort-avoidant. Preferring a magical, easy way to deter a tough situation is hard-wired into most of us. (Sahlins and crew might ague that it comes down to a basic need to keep calorie intake versus usage at a level that is advantageous for homo sapien sapiens. Then again, I could be getting that sideways. I was always more of a Geertz and Turner kind of girl.)

  3. The citizens of Pennsylvania should demand that their legislature rescind Penn State’s land grant. They’re being taxed millions of dollars a year to fund an institution that runs a child molestation ring. Turn PSU back into a cornfield.

    • Grant, I understand the feeling but hate to hold the whole university responsible for the actions of one department. A veteran pundit here in Nashville observed that in many ways, Paterno was “bigger than the university”. It makes sense and also makes me think the program should definitely be held accountable.

  4. Just one note, “Penn” is the University of Pennsylvania, and entirely different institution than Penn State.

    Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the Catholic Church, I think the problems here go far beyond the world of sports… Just awful, awful stuff here.

    • Thanks for the catch, Dirk! I did plug in those missing States. (Oy! To me, one school has always represented great football and the other turns out excellent classics scholars.)

      It is terrible and I agree that this situation bears some unfortunate similarities to the scandals that rocked the Roman Catholic Church a few years ago. The civil suits against Penn State are probably being prepared right now.

      • …and the only reason I know that is because my brother went to Penn, and I went there for one year before transferring. It’s funny that you note the classics angle, I actually took Classical Greek there!

        • That must have been fun! My first year of Greek we used the JACT texts. (Didn’t everybody?) When I did a self-directed refresher a few years ago I used online resources from Penn and UKLex.

  5. Melissa, the only thing I can figure regarding the grad student is that he was afraid for his own career. I’m not excusing him, just trying to figure out why he acted as he did.

    The people who think Paterno deserves a pass floor me.

    Walter, I partially agree and changed the title and link. In clinical intervention, “pediatric” is used to describe any condition that involves a minor and requires attention. I realised that outside of that milieu, it was incorrect. However, I felt that the issue at hand needed to acknowledge the damaged, thus the choice for a new title. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  6. I think is sports, there is a combination of the cult of personality (whether it’s on a huge scale like Joe Paterno or just the local coach everyone loves) and the oft-used “us against the world” mentality cultivated by teams and its fans, that keeps people quiet and complicit. Like the graduate assistant who reportedly saw Sandusky sodomizing a child. Why was his first impulse not to intervene and stop Sandusky from ever doing this again, but to keep quiet until he could tell Joe Paterno? Because the Penn State people, and, quite frankly, some of its fans, would have blamed said graduate assistant for “hurting” Paterno and the program.

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