Friday, November 11, 2011

The Penn State Scandal: How Good Men become Moral Failures

This is very hard to write. I have been associated with intercollegiate athletics for 25 years and served for the last ten years in an official position in the enterprise. I have helped my institution through two major scandals. Always in the turmoil and craziness of this professional world, many of us could look to Penn State as a signal that intercollegiate sports can unite integrity and winning. They had a superb President and fine Athletic Director, and they hired coaches of skill and integrity; they won the right way. At the top of the pyramid with his model permeating the organization stood Joe Paterno who could coach, win, educate and do it without any major scandals. Paterno was not a saint but had become a symbol.

Now one of the beacons of an already stained world has fallen. I know many are writing about this unfolding tragedy so I will confine my discussion to the question of how honorable and good men could fail so profoundly to protect the lives and souls of ten-year old children. As I gaze upon the wreckage from a distance I only feel moral heartsickness for the children whose personhood was invaded and stolen while others watched silently.

We have all heard the story before. An admired and respected figure in an authoritative and hierarchical organization is accused of abuse of power. The members of the organization all know each other and work with each other in intense closeness. They know and trust each other. They have hired and promoted each other from within. They know that one of their own would not abuse their power especially not child molestation. No, this is not my Catholic Church, it is modern collegiate sports.

This problem is not only about child abuse, it is about the moral failure of people who are trustees of institutions. Organizations instinctively cover up abuse that can hurt their reputation and stature. Hospital teams tolerate surgical mistakes, police departments studiously ignore institutional corruption, corporations tolerate dangerous products.

We can say with certainty that as this tragedy unfolds two issues will become clear:
  • 1.     More and more children who were abused by the Assistant Coach and Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky will step forward. A pattern of predation will be revealed that required a pattern of blindness, evasion and willful ignorance from those who worked with him.
  • 2.     It will become evident that more people, assistant coaches, trainers, grad assistants knew or strongly suspected Sandusky's depravity. Football teams and athletic departments are very close worlds. The assistant coaches all know each other’s business including who is having an affair, who has drinking problems and who is skirting rules. Trainers and staff support are all drawn into a tight intimate web of knowledge and mutual support. Nothing stays secret in these worlds.
 College football lives in a we /they world. Teams are built as much upon loyalty as on competence. “I got your back,” is not a meaningless slogan but a reality on the field and in the dog eat dog competitive world of coaching and staffing. Being around folks you can trust and give loyalty defines players, coaches and staff.

This world of loyalty refines and hones its members and replicates itself by hiring and promoting from within. Even outsiders usually come in with personal connections; the world of elite intercollegiate athletics is very small.
This internal world of self-reinforcing loyalty, trust and personal networks is reinforced by the way so many of us lavish our trust and loyalty on these institutions. We identity with them, their leaders and players. This trust and loyalty grant them strength and privilege; in many programs the coaches loom far more powerful than the athletic director or the University President. Penn State epitomized this where Coach Paterno had ignored his athletic director and president’s desire to get him to step down for years.

This is the world that protected Sanduskys’s rape of children. His relation to the Penn State program as a defensive co-ordinator and a regular member of the community continued for 35 years. Even after he retired he had the free run of the facilities. He used his access to bring young boys, the vast majority of them minorities, to the facilities as reward. He gave them presents, many of them from the endless stash of stuff Nike and others bestow on schools. He took them to games and paraded with them at banquets and bowl games. These visits and gifts impressed and groomed the young boys for his exploiting. Many Penn State players performed their public service by working for his charity, The Second Mile, to help underprivileged youth.

So Sandusky used his affiliation and status with the program to seduce the children and as a place to sodomize and fondle and get oral sex from ten year old boys. The janitors saw and knew what was going one. They did not tell anyone out of fear of losing their jobs. They believed that no one would believe them. In the Grand Jury testimony the critical testimony comes from a then 28 year old graduate assistant who saw Sandusky sodomizing a ten or eleven year old in the Penn State shower room. The graduate assistant and now an assistant coach did nothing. He watched and did not intervene. He was shaken, talked to his father and reported it to his head coach Joe Paterno. Then, having discharged his conscience and duty. He then spent the next decade rising in the coaching hierarchy while watching Sandusky come in with children day after day. He did nothing to report or stop it.

The Head Coach claims he only heard about “horsing around” or just fondling and sexual touching. He did nothing. He did his legal responsibility of reporting this to his athletic director and to the Vice President who oversaw the operations. In a clear dereliction of moral responsibility, he did not nothing else. Maybe a slight reprimand, never followed up to stop horsing around. He permitted Sandusky to continue to have access to facilities and to bring children in to them.

The senior administrators knew they had a problem and knew they had an legal obligation to report this activity to the police. They did not. They claimed they took away Sandusky's key to the shower! The athletic director and Senior Vice President admit that they never enforced any prohibition against him. Their own testimony feels self serving and defensive. and basically just thought the graduate assistant was just "uncomfortable." The athletic director and Senior Vice President decided no crime had occurred At least the high school barred him from campus and reported him to the police when they heard an accusation about Sandusky's "inappropriate" conduct. But the University had other interests than protecting children.

The President, one of the best in the country, learned something had happened. How the graduate assistant’s picture of anal sex mutated into fondling and sexual touching and mutated into horsing around is a story in itself. Many organization compress and pare information so that senior leaders often miss the full nature of what goes on. For whatever reasons, President Graham Spanier did not ask the police or his administrators to pursue or look into this.

Several things happen to people under these conditions. First, if they see an immoral action of someone they trust and respect, they literally cannot believe what they see. The mind will often perform surgery and reinterpret what they see into a frame compatible with their respect and trust for the person. So rape becomes fondling, and fondling becomes horsing around. People’s minds will reconfigure the information and their mind will deny what they see. This happens first.

Other pressures augment institutional denial and cloaking. The Grand Jury report provides the grizzly initial narrative but below it lies other mixed motives. People who believe their jobs are on the line will also deny or change their perception. They believe they will not be believed because the trusted respected figure could not be a child molester. So janitors who need the job or graduate assistants, even strapping strong healthy 28 year olds, not only deny what their eyes show them, but rationalize it away to keep their jobs or keep open their upward mobility. This is abetted by the way organizations let people off the hook. A person has the responsibility to report what he saw to a superior and that is enough. The superior is supposed to take care of it. This hierarchy reporting lets people off the hook. They can say to themselves, "I did my duty," even when they fail their moral responsibility.

As rumors spread or people get hints, like watching Sandusky rest his hand on the thigh’s of young men during drives, the men who surround him as friends and colleagues cannot afford to admit what they are seeing. They see him taking ten year olds to banquets or to hotel rooms while on the road and explain it away as his "mentoring." In self-deception a person refuses to draw out the full implications of what they see. These are not stupid people, but they are “friends” with Sandusky. They have gone through the trenches of football combat and the ups and downs of winning and losing. They are bonded by fires of competition and having each other’s back.

If they spell out to themselves that Sandusky, their friend and colleague, abuses children, then they must face themselves. They will be human beings who have as a friend and mentor a moral monster, a man who uses his affiliation with them to recruit, groom and sexually abuse children. To unmask him would expose themselves to moral attack and guilt for their own moral failure of their choice of friend and model.

The intensity of this circle of loyalty and identity is reflected by the fact that these incidents occurred in one of the most homophobic institutions in America. The engraved homophobia at the heart of men’s sport’s culture should have exploded this incident. The fact that colleagues looked the other way not just from child abuse but from the homosexuality hints at how powerful this frame insulated people from seeing or acting upon Sandusky’s actions.

Finally, institutional loyalty and preservation play a role. Officials have obligations to protect and build their institution. The rise of Penn State to national prominence was built upon a solid foundation of athletic accomplishments, but the emotional driver and symbolic lodestone had been the football program, and the football program was Joe Paterno. Any threat to athletics threatened 25 years of building the university. An athletic director, a vice president and a president all have obligations to build and protect their institution. The reporting process, the discomfort of people to face the moral truth of a person they know and might admire combine to invite people to self-deception. The culture that limits responsibility to reporting to a superior makes it all the morally convenient. People can avoid being responsible to take action or even report to the police to stop the evil they saw. This legalism releases them from responsibility and falls apart if the superiors fail in their own moral stewardship.

It is too easy to deny or hide abuse. It happens in marriages where wives protect husbands who abuse children; it certainly can happen at a university. These men knew to act publically might bring dishonor and disgrace upon the athletic program and person who personified the Penn State brand. When push came to shove, the leaders found the language and the rationalizations to downplay immorality that could tarnish or scandalize the university and the football program that symbolized and contributed to its rise.

The failure here is profound and simple. Any one of these men could have stopped the evil. Instead they were morally lazy. They settled for benign interpretations that excused them facing the brutal facts and making hard decisions. All they had to do was report it to the police; all they had to do was obey the law even if they washed their own hands. All they had to do stop Sandusky’s access. 

They did not.

They all deserve to be fired for moral dereliction.

We are not talking about dishonorable or bad men. That is the horror and lesson. This collective moral blindness can happen at any institutions to whom we give trust and who live by loyalty, “got my back” and competence. But they failed. They refused to see what was before their eyes. They refused to risk friendship or self-worth or their own institution’s reputation to protect innocent children.

In this they mirror of our frailty and remind us of own willingness to vest our own loyalty without accountability. Our own credulity gave them the warrant to continue their own moral blindness.

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