My youngest cousin, Adam, is a great little kid. He is incessantly funny in the way young kids can be when they aren’t aware of how or why older people are laughing hysterically at something they’ve said or done. The kid is somehow enjoyable to be around even when he’s grouchy about something, which is a rarity. His curiosity about everything — and the juvenile way he perceives certain things — indicate he is, in a word, innocent. His innocence is the kind inherent in many young people – the kind that lasts until it’s shrugged off by a combination of knowledge accruement and puberty.
When I met up with some family in Manhattan last week, it marked one of the increasingly rare occasions that I’ve gotten to be around him for an extended period of time. It reminded me of how awesome and impressionable children are at his age. It also made me remember how angry I am at Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator who is accused of sodomizing or inappropriately touching at least eight young boys. I’m also angry at some of the people he used to work with. My anger even extends — though I didn’t initially expect this — to some Penn State students and fans.
Everything that has come to light in the past week, coupled with the senseless reaction by some Penn State students and alumni, has brought an incredible amount of shame to the school I graduated from. I want to be clear before I go any further that Penn State’s reputation and the way people view the millions who have gone there should obviously not be the paramount concern that has stemmed from this situation, but it is something a lot of my friends — and myself, to an extent — have become very bent out of shape about.
Adam turns 10 years old this January, which means he is near the same age as one of Sandusky’s victims was about a decade ago, when former Penn State coach Mike McQueary allegedly saw him being sexually assaulted by Sandusky in a Penn State locker room shower. According to a grand jury indictment, McQueary saw the incident and left without stopping it or calling police. He eventually told former Penn State head coach, Joe Paterno, who passed the information on to the athletic director. What allegedly followed (and this is the Cliff’s Notes version, since I’m sure most everyone knows many of the details by now) was the inadequate handling of a monstrous situation. Allegedly. Nothing has been proven yet, but grand jury indictments are not made of pure conjecture.
Suffice to say, these men and others who had knowledge of the situation made some very big moral and legal mistakes that allegedly allowed Sandusky to continue sexually abusing young boys. They didn’t do everything in their power to put him away or to stop it from happening again, and when the scandal broke, most were removed from their jobs. Fired by the university’s board of trustees, Penn State delivered a very clear message: your positive contributions to society — whether they are mentoring college men, building a nice library, winning a bunch of games, or all of the above — do not grant you clemency when you allegedly do not turn in someone you know is raping children.
But apparently some people don’t agree with this idea. And so they took to the streets of State College to protest Paterno’s firing last Wednesday night, many of them asserting that Paterno did what he was legally required to do — that any mistake Paterno might have made was a moral one. Their stance was that he should not have been canned, but instead should have been allowed to retire after the season’s end.
What if one of Sandusky’s victims had been Adam? What if it had been me, my Mom tearfully wondered, because some of the victims are about as old as I am? Both thoughts make me want to go into the bathroom and start heaving, but it’s something impossible not to think about when considering all of this. Besides Sandusky, who would I have been angry at if I were an alleged victim? Joe Paterno would have been one of those people. (I am not even close to being a victim, here, and I am angry at him.) McQueary, too. Also Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, PSU’s former athletic director and vice president, respectively. I’d also be angry at Graham Spanier, the former president who pledged his support to Curley and Schultz.
What if it had been one of the kids who had taken to the streets on Wednesday night, some of whom rioted and went so far as to tip over a news truck? I imagine none of the Penn State students who have been or know someone who has been molested were out there. At least I hope none of them were. They were probably inside with the rest of the world, watching coverage of the scandal, probably because they knew that rioting in protest of something like this would have been completely asinine.
I would urge the people who rioted to thoroughly read the 23-page grand jury indictment, then go spend some time with a young, innocent boy they’re related to or close with. Or, really, any young boy. I can’t say this will establish empathy with the unnamed victims who say they were sexually abused, because that is something most of us, thankfully, cannot empathize with. But it may help them to think a little more clearly.
I hope people understand that most Penn Staters contradict the actions of the few who have tarnished the university’s reputation. Most of “us” realize there are more important things than the success of a football team, and that celebrity does not always trump accountability. We’re just as upset as you are, and most of us strive to do more good than bad. We don’t participate in offensive riots. We would never deprive a child of his or her innocence, and we would never overlook someone who did. Not all Catholics are evil, and neither are all Nittany Lion fans.
Really, though, it doesn’t matter all that much what people think about the school. It doesn’t matter that people will make tasteless jokes about one of the few things that should never be joked about. It doesn’t matter that the team lost to Nebraska on Saturday, because a loss doesn’t make this any worse, and a win wouldn’t have made it any better. Sometimes, football doesn’t matter, even if it’s being stretched into some kind of metaphor.
What matters is that the people who should be punished are punished justly, and that the rest of us don’t forget about what happened, ever. And that we remain vigilant about making sure it never happens again, if we can help it.
During lunch last weekend, Adam’s Mom asked her brother and I if she should read the indictment.
“No. Because you have kids,” my uncle and I said. She would learn nothing she doesn’t already know about protecting her two young sons by reading those vivid details.
As soon as Adam heard us speaking of his Mom’s kids, he stopped spooning hot chocolate from his mug into his mouth (he does this, simply “because it’s fun”), perked up and said, “What?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, and I hope more than anything that he never has to worry about something even remotely similar to all of this. Ensuring that he doesn’t, and that others don’t, is what matters the most.