The Penn State Ethic

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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.

That was fall of 1999, my first semester, and it established the tone for the rest of my three years at University Park. The student athletes turned out to be a wonderfully disciplined lot. They showed up on the first day of class with a list in-hand of each class they would be missing due to games or travel, and explained that they would turn in any homework assignments ahead of time and also take any missed tests ahead of time. They were uniformly polite and deferential; they made use of the tutoring center of their own accord; and they were model students, across the board.

Everyone knew it was head coach Joe Paterno’s rule that made the student athletes so disciplined. His message was clear: Playing college sports is a privilege. Academics always come first. No special license would be accorded to athletes–no extra time for tests or homework, no excuses for missed work, no pressure on instructors from coaching staff to let things slip, no cover-ups for bad behavior in or out of the classroom like at so many other universities. No mass plagiarism scandals, no tolerance of domestic violence. JoePa famously only allowed numbers on jerseys, no names, to discourage egoism. It was a wonderful contrast to what I had braced myself for.

During my high school and early college days, I’m ashamed to say, I had a holier-than-thou attitude toward student athletes. Who cares about something as insignificant and pointless as game play when there are the elevated arenas of academics and fine arts? But the passion of the student athletes at Penn State chipped away at my smugness, and I came to wholly admire them. They were good at it, they loved it, and they worked hard to make it happen. They were cool people with direction and dreams.

In my three years at Penn State, I never attended a football game and avoided the blue-and-white chaos of downtown on game day, but I got swept up in the legend of JoePa. I never became a rabid fan, but I was won over by JoePa and what he stood for. He was untouchable.

Until now. The grand jury report detailing the child sex abuse crimes committed in the campus football locker room by Matt’s father, coach Jerry Sandusky, makes my blood run cold: Graduate assistant Mike McQueary “saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be ten years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky.” McQueary reported this crime directly to Joe Paterno, who in turn reported it to his supervisor. But the speed with which an eyewitness report of child rape got watered down to a message of “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature” is chilling. And it was Paterno who did the watering down.

From Paterno, the message spread up the line to athletic director Tim Curley (who testified that the behavior was reported to him as “horsing around”), senior vice president Gary Schultz, and president Graham Spanier. Not one went to the police. These are men of power and supposed great integrity, men who shaped the ethos of a town and its university. These are not disempowered people–like the boys who were sodomized–who don’t know where to turn. Nearly a decade later, Curley and Schultz have now been indicted for perjury and failure to report child abuse, and Paterno and Spanier have been fired, as is their due.

The issue here is not just that the crimes were committed. Jerry Sandusky is clearly a mentally diseased sexual predator who lost his moral compass many years ago; may his maker forgive him, even if the rest of us cannot. The issue here is also that the crimes were repeatedly and inexplicably covered up and allowed to continue by people who knew better, who had an intact and well-promoted moral center. Over and over, these victims were failed by people who knew the difference between right and wrong, who had the ability to make a difference.

The Patriot-News article that ran the story of the grand jury investigation back in March describes years of child abuse by Jerry Sandusky, many reported incidents that went nowhere, and multiple missed opportunities to end the abuse:

Another boy, now an adult in the armed forces, was named as a witness in the 1998 Penn State police report and has been contacted by state police, his wife confirmed.

When reached by phone, his mother said she took her son to Penn State police for questioning in 1998 but didn’t listen to the interview. She said she never asked her son what happened.

In a way, child sex abuse is literally an unspeakable crime. Perhaps that explains why so many adults failed to come forward, failed to protect the children involved. They didn’t want to believe, they couldn’t confront the horror. It must be a misunderstanding, they think, or a one-time instance of something that got out of hand and misinterpreted. But the distress that an adult feels upon learning of child abuse is so little compared to the confusion and terror and shame experienced by the victim.

In the November 4 Patriot-News story that caught national media attention, my wayward student’s name comes up:

Among those who testified was the mother of Sandusky’s youngest adopted son, a boy he met through The Second Mile, took in as a foster child and later legally adopted as an adult.

Matt Sandusky’s mother, Debra Long, told The Patriot-News that she had raised concerns about the behavior of her son and Sandusky once her son went to live with the Sandusky family in 1995.

“We tried to stop it back then,” Long said. “We were dragging it to the court system all the time and we couldn’t prevent it. It upsets me, because these kids didn’t need to go through this.”

The message that needs to come out of this tragedy is that when a victim of child abuse speaks, listen. When the crime of child abuse is reported, act on it. When whispers of child abuse are spread, follow them to their source. Never be in the position, like Paterno in his retirement announcement, to say, “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

The impressive ethic I witnessed at Penn State–no special license for bad behavior, no excuses, no cover-ups–somehow applied only to the students and entirely escaped the coaching staff. And although it was Paterno who spread the message, it was the students who displayed the heart and the hard work to make it come to life. Even though university officials fell below the ethic they established, I am going to hold on to the lesson I learned in my dusty basement cubicle. Any young person who can figure out what they’re good at and go after it deserves my wholehearted respect. The passionate glint in the eyes of the student athletes, the talent they found in themselves and cultivated, fell right in line with those who earned accolades for their work in the humanities, sciences, and arts. Plenty of the players I knew were scholarship students for whom their athletic skill, combined with diligent study, was their only ticket to the kind of education Penn State could provide. Mom and Dad couldn’t write a check. They were bright and hardworking and incredibly focused.

Despite the ugly student riots that further tarnished the Penn State image, I know this mindset doesn’t represent the entire student body. In fact, I sense that it will be the students and alumni who search the hardest for a positive outcome from the terrible serial child abuse that was allowed to be committed on their home ground, and it’s with a grateful heart that I watch a grassroots effort take hold to raise $557,000–a dollar for every Penn State alumni–to help victims of child abuse through the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. As of today, they’ve raised $344,152. (In the time it took me to post this article, another $8,000 was raised.) Knowing the student body at Penn State and their sense of community and purpose, I believe they will transcend their financial goal and, even more importantly, make the ugly reality of child abuse a topic of open discussion and establish a clear response system–and restore the ethic I admired during my time in Happy Valley.

–Danielle (Ibister) Magnuson, ’02

Source: The Patriot-News, The Penn Stater, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network

Image by acaben, licensed under Creative Commons.

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