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03 August 2012 @ 07:34 pm
Moral Absolutism and the Penn State Scandal  
I'm glad that PSU was punished by the NCAA for the Jerry Sandusky molestation scandal. I'm glad that the school was levied a huge fine, lost football scholarships, and had wins removed from its record. I'm glad that those wins were taken away from Joe Paterno.

I am not, however, motivated by a vengeful glee in relishing this punishment. I don't really care about college football so I'm not interested in making snarky (if accurate) remarks about Penn State like some of my friends from The University of Pittsburgh. Pitt and Penn State have had a rivalry for many years so it's understandable that the Pitt fans and alumni share a secret smile in PSU's downfall, though, for the most part, they seem respectful. I could be wrong - I shy away from internet forums and rabid fandom. I didn't go to Pitt, I went to Allegheny College (and I have my own beefs with my alma mater) so I don't have a horse in that race.

I am motivated, instead, by what I can only consider a "moral imperative" about "justice" that Penn State is punished. I put those words in quotes because I fear falling into the same trap as so many PSU students, alumni and fans who are now lashing out about the unfair punishment they must endure. The trap to which I refer is absolutism -- believing in something so strongly, so absolutely that I lose sight of all perspective. I believe in justice. I believe justice is one of the greatest concepts humanity has conceived, that we have evolved from a philosophy of "might makes right" to the enlightened ideal that no one single man is above the law. Jerry Sandusky is a single man. And yes, Joe Paterno is a single man.
There are many who, in the aftermath of the NCAA's decision, feel that PSU is being targeted unfairly. That the sanctions and fines -- no appearances in the post season for 4 years, $60 fined, loss of Bowl revenues, fewer football scholarships -- are punishing the wrong people: the PSU faithful, who took no part in the crimes or cover up and ought not to be punished. They decry the penalties as unfair, but, I think, recognize that there were more severe penalties that were not enacted. The NCAA could have eliminated the PSU football program. That would have had a disastrous effect on the school, other university sports funded by football revenue, the local economy, and the other campuses of the PSU system. Enrollment might well plummet.

Ultimately, though, Penn State will recover. It's a black eye, this scandal, but even the
worst shiner fades in time. In ten, fifteen, twenty years the cheering crowds in Happy Valley will return with more enthusiasm and passion than ever before displayed. To those momentarily hurt by the scandal I say, "There there." This, too, shall pass. And things will return to normal.

But should they?

In Happy Valley, football is religion. It is the lifeblood of the university, it is centerpiece of the economy and its fanatic supporters have already demonstrated their unwillingness to be reasonable in the wake of what should be a simple moral question. When Joe Paterno stepped down, students rioted. No wonder of it: Penn State is a party school. Drinking is a huge part of the culture. The administrators even admit they are unable to curb, curtail or control underage binge drinking. Clearly the student body is enraptured in a culture of booze and football which supersedes their better judgment. This is a campus where a student donned a Captain America costume and took to the streets when news came out that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. It's just natural that these idiotic college kids would look more to their beloved football idol than the cold, hard facts of the situation. Right?

Such moral judgments should be reserved only for the truly religious. The sentiment of the preceding paragraph is one I've noticed in the media surrounding any story about Penn State. It's easy to throw up one's hands with a "What can you do?" attitude and simply admit that's how life is in State College, PA. I'm not religious, though, and I don’t want to be accused of such biased morality. I want to understand why the student body reacts as it does without judgment. I want to know why seemingly reasonable people would overlook monstrous acts and still maintain a defensive posture. "Don’t attack my school!" seems to be the sentiment. It's nice that they have a sense of camaraderie, of belonging to something greater than themselves. But the idea to which they belong has been demonstrably proven to be false - a false idol, frail and human, who committed, in my opinion, a crime far worse than those of his assistant coach: Ignorance of sin is, I feel, greater than sin itself.

But like I say, I'm not a religious person. So why do I feel so strongly about Paterno and Sandusky? Why do I feel confident that my moral compass is accurate on this one? What makes me more correct, say, than the religious zealots who denounce my lifestyle (homosexual) as immoral, sinful and punishable by eternal damnation? Just why do I think my morals are better than theirs?

Well, I just do. I'm right, and I think I can prove it, but would anyone believe the argument? Not disinterested third parties, mind you, but opponents - could I really sway anyone with my arguments? "Justice," I'd contend, "is dispassionate. It cares not about an individual's social status, class, background, aspirations, skin color, eye color, height, weight -- it concerns itself with only one question: 'Did you break the law?'"
"Nonsense!" my opponents would contend. "There's racial bias in the justice system! The wealthy can afford lawyers to reduce their sentences and get them off on technicalities!" Of course they're right and I know it. I know the systems of human justice are, and always will be, flawed. That doesn't mean they aren't ideals to which we should aspire. But back to the question of morality -- why do we overlook the actions of two men to defend a place to which we give money in order to receive a slip of paper? Let's consider each man.

Jerry Sandusky needs help. His crimes are terrible, yes, but that doesn't mean he's not worthy of our pity. Pedophilia is a serious issue but it can be treated. I could go on for pages and pages about how the criminalization of pedophilia and mandatory reporting laws have done a disservice to our culture in combating this affliction, but I'm not going to waste the space here. Look up Dan Savage's podcast on the subject for some more interesting thoughts.
Instead, I want to focus not on Sandusky's paraphilia, but his actions. Anyone can be a pedophile, but not everyone has the ability to use his power and connections to not only solicit young boys but to exert enough influence to keep the whole thing quiet. If, say, I were to approach a young boy in the shower at my local YMCA and begin touching him inappropriately or (heaven forbid) engaging in salacious acts, and I was observed by another party, do you know what would happen to me? I would be immediately attacked. Without reservation, anyone who saw me behaving inappropriately with a young child would rush at me with speed and the intent to do grievous bodily harm. What makes me different from Jerry Sandusky? Other than not being a pedophile, I don't have considerable influence. I'm not a respected demagogue. No one would see me behaving inappropriately, assess the situation and then turn and walk away.

Why was Sandusky allowed to continue his rapacious activities for years? Because the men who could have done something about it were fearful of their jobs. Why? Because football is religion in Happy Valley and to question Sandusky is to question St. Peter or St. Paul or a similarly revered religious figure. And the matter was brought to the attention of the man himself, the Pope of Penn State, Joe Paterno. Not unlike the actual Pope (note how I've been mum on the Catholic Church scandal so far) Paterno turned a blind eye.

There's no denying the impact of Joe Paterno. He transformed the football program at PSU and has amassed a record of wins that may well be unrivaled for the remaining history of college sports. Should his legacy be tarnished? Yes, absolutely.

The great failure of demagoguery is that we fail to embrace the very greatest thing about ourselves -- our imperfections. The human struggle is an attempt at perfection in a fundamentally imperfect world. Our aspiration to perfection is what motivates our movements of thought, science, art, poetry - we intend to make something that transcends the human condition. That's the appeal and the drama of sports - we are drawn to something greater than ourselves, to lose our individuality in a sea of navy and white, to cheer on a team as it hopes to go for a perfect season, win after win after win. And by handing over our individuality, we elevate those responsible for our transcendence to godlike status, seeing in them neither flaw nor fault. We forget, temporarily, in both our humanness and their humanness. When we believe in anyone, for any reason, above their respective humanity we have made an error in judgment. If you are religious, this is justified by claiming the individual is beyond criticism for they are beyond humanity -- Jesus was the Messiah, Mohammed the great prophet, Buddha the enlightened one -- but if your religion is grounded on the gridiron, and not miracles, then the failure to recognize humanity is all the greater.

Here's why: Faced with evidence that his chief lieutenant was indulging in inappropriate behavior, Joe Paterno did nothing to correct the actions. Instead, he actively sought to cover up the allegations and pretend nothing was wrong. He did not take his friend aside and say "You need help, Jerry. I want to get you help." He did not remove his friend from the vicinity of young boys until he got the help he needed. He avoided all of these things to preserve the pristine reputation of his school, an act which ultimately tarnished that reputation and that school.

This must be the lesson: that we should never seek to cover up, deny or hide our shortcomings and failures. The truth will out and it is better to be in control than not. Joe Paterno could have removed his friend from his responsibilities, encouraged him to get help. If anyone asked, he could have said "My friend Jerry needs help. He is my friend, and I want to see him get the help he needs." If the story broke, he could have said "Yes, I tried to keep this story from the papers, but not because I wanted to protect my reputation or that of the school, but because I was worried about my friend. I was worried that the media would demonize him and ruin his life. He has made mistakes, and he is responsible for those mistakes. But I am his friend, I will stand by him and I will make sure he gets the help he needs so that no one else need be harmed by his actions."

Of course we all know that never would have happened. Who knows? Maybe Paterno did encourage Sandusky to get help. What we know is that Sandusky was not removed, more boys were molested, and ultimately the scandal exploded. Paterno was taken down, Sandusky has been convicted. Why, though, didn't Paterno act?

Crimes against children are considered the most heinous in our culture. Sexual violence against children is beyond the pale, the very worst that our imaginations can offer. As the religious might say, there's a special place in hell for people like that. Why, though, does this stigma exist? Obviously there is the belief in childlike innocence. Rape happens every day, and when a woman gets raped a part of us says, "Well, she was an adult. She knew the risks." But if the rape victim is a child, we say "That poor child. There is no way that child could have understood the risks. No way that that child deserved to be raped, like those adult women do."

Don't think that's true? This is the price we pay for a religious society, obsessed with sinfulness. Women who have sex are sinful therefore they deserve their punishments, both physical and spiritual. That is why the "rape culture" so often described by feminists does not change. Somehow, though, we believe that children are sacred, spared from the taint of sin and sensuality that we as adults are. That's why sexual assault of children rankles us so; it twists in the pit of our stomachs and makes us feel wretched.

We're so obsessed, in fact, that we parade the victims, pour out our hearts, wail and moan, and pray, pray, PRAY that someday, somehow they'll recover. And we ignore the fact that a significant number of sexual assault victims go on to lead healthy, normal lives. We forget that the first step in the healing process is admitting that something bad happened, making the guilty parties accountable, and moving forward. We're so sex negative that we don't create the kind of environment where someone like Jerry Sandusky could have come forward to a trusted, confidential therapist and received help for his issues.

This in no way exonerates Sandusky of the evils of his crimes. I am in no way suggesting we judge him less, or that he does not deserve the full punishment for the crimes of which he was convicted. I have no deep-seeded hippy-dippy liberal agenda asking for compassion and understanding for a man who willfully molested young boys by means of forgiving him or lessening the horror of his actions. I do think that compassion, understanding and forgiveness are within our capacity and we should consider leveling them towards Sandusky, not for his actions but because we could have helped him and others like him if we showed more of those qualities. Even so, he chose to exert his power and he chose to commit his crimes, therefore his punishment is just.

And that is why I think the Penn State punishment is appropriate. I think that the institution should be shamed for harboring this man, misguided by his inner demons though he was. I think that it should be a clear message to the world that such acts of cowardice and concealment can never be tolerated, that they will always be found out, and that failure to rid yourself or your organization of such cancers will always lead to self destruction.

I'm sorry if that offends the Nittany Lion faithful, but I charge you with this: Be good and do good. Live your lives with your heads held high. Learn from this example and take its lessons to heart; never allow its like to repeat at your school, or any place you work. You have the power to restore dignity and honor to your school. You have the power to overcome these obstacles and set an example for the generations to come. You can be a part of the change that is coming, accepting the sins of the past and building a better world for tomorrow. You are Penn State.
 
 
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