The Penn State Ethic


Penn State 

The little basement room where our cubicles were crammed smelled like dust and coffee. I occupied the farthest cube against the back wall, through which a snippet of window and weak sunlight and outdoor vines peeked. Here I answered student emails and graded compositions and wrote stories. It was a big football university, although I wasn’t there to tailgate but rather to study creative writing in the graduate program and meanwhile earn my way teaching English to undergrads. Some of these undergrads inevitably turned out to be student athletes: softball players, track runners, and of course football players. I was initially leery of them. At a Division I school like Penn State, these are high-profile students with a lot riding on their performance on the field, from scholarships to championships. Or, boiled down, money and prestige.

Here in this little grad student dungeon I fielded an email from a frantic student named Matt Sandusky. He was signed up for my class but had stopped showing up many weeks earlier. He never got around to dropping the course, and then the drop deadline passed—which meant he automatically earned a failing grade. His email asked something to the effect of If I start coming now, is there any way I can get a passing grade? I’m on the football team, and my dad is a coach, and I just can’t fail or I won’t be able to play.

No, I told him firmly, you’ve missed far too much class time to recoup. I’m sorry but you’ve already failed the course.

After the exchange, I talked to the department dean, just in case I got wrapped up in some pushy football player privilege drama. He’s a coach’s son, I said anxiously. No, she assured me, this school has zero tolerance for that; I guarantee you there will be no pressure from the coaching staff.

And there never was. Matt Sandusky accepted my decision, he was sidelined for the season, and I never heard a word from the coaches. I was impressed.

Dana Snell
11/18/2011 7:18:53 PM

Danielle, You have really gotten to the heart of the matter. Whether it is a family or an institution, the secrecy is thing that keeps perpetuating child abuse in every form. Sexual predators rely upon the fact that nobody wants to talk about it and will do nearly anything to avoid the issue. When one little "worthless" child tells someone, the entire family or institution is at risk of being uprooted. Victims of incest suffer in silence because they understand at an early age that to tell will destroy the family and they will never be forgiven for that. (I know because I was one of the silent ones.) On a larger scale, perhaps, so it is with the university. It is so crazy and unnerving... That is why McQ is still befuddled. When his report was tossed around and reshaped and "diluted," as you say, he just kind of thought they were right and he must've been wrong somehow. Another thing that makes it so scary: In California, about 20 years ago, there were several scandals in which victims told lies after being coached by court psychologists. Innocent adults were charged with Satan worship, animal and child sacrifice. They were looking for missing children who never existed, in some cases. The children's testimonies began to sound fake and then a few of them crumbled and the entire situation came crashing down. One case in San Diego was about a disabled man named Dale Akiki. He actually spent time in prison where local gang members protected him because they knew he wasn't guilty. Eventually, everyone realized it and he won his appeal. It was just shameful. Sometimes the children do not tell the truth and it takes a lot of courage and work to find the truth.... But MOST of the time, children DO tell the truth about these matters. Most children are just as mortified and embarrassed as adults and it is difficult to tell the story. I say believe them and then let the truth rise to the top. I do not doubt the case against Sandusky at all but, if I were on a jury, I would really listen and test the evidence in my mind and determine if this man is really the deviant character he seems to be. It is a terrible thing. What a fight those kids had to go through to be heard!

Paul Haider
11/18/2011 4:59:11 PM

The most shocking thing about the sexual abuse at Penn State is that it occurred outside of the Catholic Church. Was Jerry Sandusky in training to become a priest before he became a college football coach? The fact that he married his wife when she was 17 years old and still a minor can only prove that his sense of morality and good judgment have always been suspect. I used to root against Notre Dame's football team because of its association with Jesuits, but Penn State has become the college football team that I love to hate. Justice has to be served in Unhappy Valley! Paul Haider, Chicago

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