I generally try to avoid topics that are already over-covered in the media, but I do want to say a couple things about the Penn State scandal.
First, if you’re not a college football fan, it’s hard to appreciate what a shock this all has been, and why it’s drawing so many comparisons to the Catholic clergy’s pedophilia scandal. Maybe the person in the best position to comment is sexual-abuse-prevention activist and College Football Hall of Fame quarterback Don MacPherson:
The program under Joe Paterno is considered one of the cleanest in college football, boasting high graduation rates and on-field performance. … Penn State stood above in the hypercompetitive and often unscrupulous world of college sports, and this served as a recruiting tool and an assurance to parents of promising high school football players. It’s also not hard to understand why parents of troubled young men would want their sons to have the influence of the environment that Penn State and [Paterno assistant coach and accused child rapist Jerry] Sandusky provided.
Many other college coaches … well, let’s not slander them by name, but I would just roll my eyes if I heard a similar story about them. Their whole careers display an it-doesn’t-matter-if-you-don’t-get-caught approach to life. If exposing some crime would threaten the image of their programs, of course they’d look the other way. But Joe Paterno? That’s disturbing on a deeper level.
Second, the comparison between the Catholic Church and the Penn State football program points up something else: American society has changed since the Catholic Church scandal broke. There was a certain amount of wagon-circling around Paterno and his program, but not really that much by comparison to the pedophile-priest scandal. (The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue is still circling the wagons.)
Instead, a lot of people who clearly wanted to defend Paterno largely skipped past denial and went straight to how-could-this-have-happened shock and grief.
This ESPN clip comes from the day after the scandal broke. ESPN analyst and former Paterno linebacker Matt Millen (while he wants to give Paterno a chance to defend himself) is already wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of it — at one point going silent because he will start crying otherwise.
Millen’s reaction goes straight to the heart of why this story is upsetting: It overturns our comfortable notion that good people only do good things and bad people only do bad things. It’s obvious that for all these years, Paterno has been a moral voice in Millen’s head, calling him to live by a higher standard. And Jerry Sandusky … I’ll let Millen tell it:
Jerry Sandusky is your next door neighbor. He’s the guy you’ve known your whole life. He’s a helpful guy. He’s a light-hearted guy. He’s a smart guy. He’s a willing-to-help person. He’s everything you want. That’s the thing that just … could you see it coming? I mean … I’ve sat here. I’ve known the guy since 1976. I’ve been in meetings with him. He’s been in my home.
But all that doesn’t lead Millen to say “It can’t be true!” Instead he asks himself: “Could you see it coming?”
This mystery is part of what McPherson is confronting in his article The Myth of the Monster Pedophile: Sandusky wasn’t a child rapist pretending to be a nice guy, and he wasn’t a nice guy suddenly possessed by a child-raping demon. He was genuinely a nice guy in some settings and genuinely a child rapist in others. That’s what’s so disturbing.