(What I say here assumes that commonly held assumptions are correct. Everyone deserves a fair trial. I say this upfront because it bears a lot on my points here.)
The Penn State scandal is shocking and sad. And frustrating, stupefying, infuriating, bizarre, image-shattering and era-defining. And irrevocably tragic.
This is one of those times where there’s more than enough ugliness to go around. Not just for those who perpetrated the molestation of young boys, but for those who misdirect their anger over it. And, yes, there’s a lot of that going on.
I hope it goes without saying that any decent human being is dead set against child molestation. Just the idea that a trusted authority figure would rape young boys, and that others knew about it but didn’t take appropriate action, is enough to get anyone with a pulse to go red and rapid. As often happens in these situations, I think that obvious fact gets lost. Because to hear many of people’s kneejerk reaction to the situation, anyone who is not completely black-and-white on the issue is a monster. And by “issue,” I don’t mean the molestation (that is black and white) — I’m referring to the aftermath.
In response to Penn State students taking to the streets in defense of fired head coach Joe Paterno, many said, “How dare these jerks put winning football games above heinous crimes!” And yes, that would be awful — if that’s what they were doing. But I’d prefer to think that not one member of that march felt any need to defend Jerry Sandusky, or otherwise would ever apologize for child rape. But then again, “How dare these jerks put a beloved figure, mentor and friend above murky allegations of guilt by association” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
It’s hard for me not to feel at least a twinge of pity for Paterno. Because if it turns out that he somehow isn’t complicit in all this, he really got a bad deal. Maybe an inevitable one, but still something I’d hate to contemplate in his shoes. And if he did get a bad deal, it’s because we as a mob demand heads. After 61 years at Penn State, Paterno left in disgrace. But at this point at least, it’s hard to tell whose disgrace it is.
Paterno is the lightning rod because people know who he is. And because he has farther to fall. A friend of mine described his firing as “a drop in the bucket,” and I agree. At worst, there was a concerted effort to suppress these incidents. If that’s true, it doesn’t start or end with one person. If Paterno was culpable, he certainly deserves firing and punishment. But so would lots of other people alongside him. And we’d better get the right ones, not only to justify the roundup, but so that the truly bad apples are out of position to foster that environment from here on out. That, not vengeance, should be the point of any firing and of any punishment meted out.
What bothers me about the backlash is that it often ignores the real issues and becomes about something else. I’ve written numerous times about how a lot of tragic events become excuses for people to engage in their prejudices. Instead of addressing the problems and coming together to put a stop to them, we get further circling of the respective wagons and a competition to see who can be the most self-righteously reactionary. It becomes more about punishment than about helping the victims.
Among the worst offenders:
• People who issue blanket condemnation. This diminishes the true heinousness of the crimes. Sandusky is the real heel here. Paterno deserves no slack either if he knew about it and did nothing or not enough. But to hold the two in equal contempt is doing Sandusky a favor he doesn’t deserve. Assuming what we’ve heard is true, then both men deserve our scorn for different reasons. And as I’ve said, any scorn due to Paterno is equally due to numerous others.
• Penn State partisans. On the flip side, these are the people who will never believe Paterno did anything wrong, even if evidence shows that he did cover it up. These are the people who critics complain hold football and prestige above all else. They do exist, though I doubt their numbers approach anything near the number of sane, rational, caring human beings in the Penn State community. I worry that the adamance of the “my school right or wrong” crowd will make assigning accurate blame all that much harder.
• Those who cite this as proof that college athletics should be de-emphasized or eradicated. Why do I suspect that everyone who says this has always wanted to do that?
The outrage and grief that this scandal has brought forth is very real, and the irreparable harm done to the victims very tragic. The last thing it needs is the boilerplate responses it triggers from all the usual suspects. That may be human nature, but compassion is also part of human nature. And compassion for the victims, not a mob mentality one way or the other, should always be first and foremost.