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June 30, 2012
HURT: We should learn from Sandusky case
"As citizens, we must prevent wrongdoing because the world in which we all live - wrong-doer, wrong sufferer and spectator - is at stake." - Hannah Arendt
The end of the Jerry Sandusky trial in Pennsylvania, which saw the former Penn State defensive coordinator convicted of dozens of counts of sexual molestation of young boys, probably felt like closure for some observers, those who wanted to see Sandusky locked away for what will amount to the rest of his life.
But the trial's aftermath continues and, as I have noted before, it deserves special attention in a community like Tuscaloosa, a place not so different from State College, Pa., in some ways, a town where college football and its heroes quickly become larger than life.
CNN's recent revelations of emails to be revealed by Penn State's internal review make it more clear than ever that Sandusky could have been stopped sooner, and that Penn State officials including Joe Paterno chose to stop short of their responsibilities, not just the legalities but the moral imperatives.
Other writers, most notably Yahoo's Dan Wetzel, have done a fine job of looking at the latest revelations and their devastating effect on what was left of Paterno's legacy. No, Paterno did not perpetrate the crime, but he helped propagate it.
Why? We may never know the answer. It may have been a cold, calculated move to deflect negative attention away from Penn State football at a time (2001) when the Nittany Lions were struggling. That is a good conspiracy theory, and may well be true. But there is a more insidious evil - one that disguises itself as good so convincingly that the actor can convince himself that his actions were ultimately right. Paterno may have honestly felt that he was doing a good deed by giving the benefit of the doubt to Sandusky, a longtime friend and employee whose life would have been ruined by such allegations.
But that is no excuse. The fact certainly is that Sandusky was a member of the fraternity, or the family or the inner circle - choose any characterization you like - of Penn State football. Thus Paterno - along with those higher up the nominal chain of command (though in some senses, right up to the school president, answerable to Paterno) - chose to protect Sandusky instead of protecting the helpless victims. Again, Arendt - who had seen the unthinkable extension of this banal evil at the Adolf Eichmann trial - would have understood:
"Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."
Much has been said about this case, but there are two points that deserve to be raised, not about the individuals - Sandusky, Paterno, Graham Spanier or anyone else - but about the frightening nature of institutional morality itself, points that I haven't seen elsewhere.
For me, the most chilling of all the recent revelations have not come in the horrific details of the crime and the cover-up, but in the proposed solution, in which former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley proposes going soft on Sandusky with the caveat that he confine his activities to locations away from the Penn State campus.
Nothing could make it more clear that Curley, and by extension Paterno, knew what was going on, but the impetus to relocate it was not moral. It was not the product of anguished inner reflection, or the fear of a thunderbolt from an angry God. The "morality," if it can be called that, was truly modern - the fear of civil liability and punitive damages.
Ultimately, that failed, too. Lawyers will be trampling out the vintage from where those grapes were stored for years to come.
But an institution's moral compass these days is often built on no more and no less than what it can be sued for.
One other point needs to be made, and people who love college football and live in a football town know this is true. Part of the culture which made denial possible in Happy Valley is a mentality that takes hold most tenaciously with success, one in which the football program isn't simply successful, or an asset to the community or the engine of a powerful economic machine. An attitude develops that the program is "good" (and, by extension, that most of its rivals are "bad").
Penn State certainly pushed that "good" image, but it was hardly alone. Most schools do. No one has to look far for examples of programs that cite their "family atmosphere" or proclaim themselves "a shining beacon on a hill." Alabama isn't exempt from that, by any means.
When Isaiah Crowell, the Georgia running back, got into trouble last week and was ultimately dismissed, how many fans took that as proof that their program was "better" than Georgia's? Certainly, the scorn being heaped on Penn State today is justified, but how much of it contains a tiny bit of "it-couldn't-happen-here" smugness? Hopefully, it couldn't, not in Tuscaloosa or anywhere else, but the statistics aren't on the side of this being an isolated incident.
If there is anything other than evil to come out of the Sandusky case, it has to be the lessons that can be learned. First, protect the defenseless. Second to that should be a heightened awareness that it can happen to any program, no matter how "good" it perceives itself to be. This isn't an issue of one place, one school, one program being better or worse than another. It is an issue, as Arendt observed, of how we are going to live in this world - not some of us, not those who wear the same colors, or pull for the same team. Not just the perpetrators and the victims, but the spectators. Which means all of us.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.