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What we talk about when we can’t talk about the real story, or refocusing on Jerry Sandusky

November 10, 2011

Joe Paterno, seen standing on the Penn State sideline he prowled for 46 years, was fired Wednesday evening.

In the hour of Joe Paterno’s greatest disgrace, standing on his porch after being unceremoniously fired as coach of Penn State earlier in the day, he found it necessary to say two things: Pray for Jerry Sandusky’s victims and “We ARE Penn State.”

In an odd way, the now-disgraced coach was attempting to refocus the narrative on the two places it should be right now: the horrible crimes of his once-trusted lieutenant and the institutional failure that allowed countless young boys to be molested since 1998. The one place this story shouldn’t be is on the firing of college football’s greatest coaching career, which only reiterates the magnitude of Sandusky’s crimes.

Rather than talking about Sandusky, though, it is easier to focus on the decision by Penn State’s Board of Trustees to fire the iconic coach, refusing him the opportunity to leave on his own terms. This has been written elsewhere, but Paterno lost that opportunity nine years ago when a graduate assistant came to him and told him that he’d seen Jerry Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in the Penn State locker room. Paterno claimed that the grad assistant had only told him about “inappropriate touching” or “fondling.” Alas, as soon as you hear the words “grown man,” “young boy,” and “shower” together — minus any details — red flags spring up.

Paterno, though, is only one accessory to one of the most tragic, unbelievable stories we’re ever going to hear.

The reason for that is mind-bogglingly simple, but also incredibly complicated to fix: As a culture, we have no idea how to talk about sexual abuse, a fact that becomes even more true when children are involved.

The crimes are so disgusting — so unimaginable — that it is natural to turn the mind’s eye in a different direction than continuing to think about what these crimes could say about human nature. It is much easier to think about Sandusky as being behind bars tonight, getting his teeth kicked in by a fellow inmate, than it is to think of another person like him committing a similar act of abuse somewhere in America.

Reading the grand jury report is a gut-wrenching, stomach-turning exercise. Sandusky — who wormed his way into the good graces of one of the five most prestigious college football programs in college football and then used that status to molest young, underprivileged boys — is allegedly the kind of criminal whose face you want to pin on a punching bag only to light the punching bag on fire and walk away.

It’s incredible to think that Penn State administrators chose to make a tragically ill-advised attempt at upholding the school’s honor when in actuality they were failing it about as drastically as they possibly could.

The signs were all there with Sandusky, and he was even caught red-handed — four separate times.

Jerry Sandusky, seen standing with Paterno, is charged with 40 counts of abusing a total of eight victims.

He was caught in 1998 when police investigated him for initiating inappropriate contact with a young boy in a shower. (Some speculation points to this incident being the reason Sandusky left Penn State.) Investigators’ reacted to this incident by telling Sandusky not to shower with children again instead of putting him in shackles and giving him countless hours of therapy.

He was caught in 2000 when a janitor saw Sandusky performing a sex act on a young boy in a shower.

He was, now notoriously, caught in 2002 when a graduate assistant saw Sandusky sodomizing a child. That investigation resulted in an unenforceable ban on Sandusky bringing children to Penn State’s campus — a particularly incredulous punishment when you consider that Sandusky still had keys to Penn State facilities.

In 2008, at least 10 years after the first indicators of predatory behavior became apparent, someone finally decided that it was  worth reporting Sandusky’s behavior to law enforcement.

That is four separate known incidents where someone saw or heard enough to classify Sandusky’s behavior as incredibly appropriate. Instead of approaching the proper authorities, though, someone got scared.

In the first instance, the investigators decided to stop pursuing the case for some reason, leaving Sandusky with “advice” that he shouldn’t have needed if he were a typical member of society. In the second instance, the janitor who saw the incident (and said it was more disturbing than the atrocities he’d seen during the Korean War) and those he told about it were worried they would lose their jobs. In the third instance, the graduate assistant who saw the incident reported it to Paterno, whom he viewed as the ultimate authority at Penn State, and Paterno chose to take the matter up a bureaucratic ladder rather than addressing the issue himself.*

*To my thinking, that graduate assistant — who I will not name here — is the most tragic figure on the Penn State end of this story. He had reached his dream position and then seen someone he likely respected, at least on a professional level, committing a horrible crime. Shaken, he reached out to the person he thought he could trust the most and, rather than receiving that person’s backing and being advised to approach authorities, was told to sit tight. His name is now a curse word in State College and he’ll be lucky to find another job in coaching when Penn State inevitably lets him go after this season or sooner. And all because he wanted to put a new pair of shoes in his locker on a Friday night.

These people all had the power to stop a monster. None of them took it because they were afraid of the theoretic fallout and, as a result, more crimes were committed. Even as this story is one of a brazen, unconscionable criminal it is also one of a cowardice-ridden society where reputation mattered more than ensuring that there would be no more victims.

Institutional failure on this scope is baffling and tragic, but it only occurred because a host of individuals allowed it to.

Today, students in Happy Valley should be reconsidering what “We are Penn State!” means. Courage to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, consequences be damned needs to be a major part of whatever conclusion they reach.

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