Sunday, July 21, 2013

Penn State Football: On Losing Your Voice When It Comes to Sandusky

Media critic John Ziegler had it right in his newly published online book, "The Betrayal of Joe Paterno", which I recommend that you access here at his website  In Chapter 5, entitled "The Firing", Ziegler describes the late night decision of the Board of Trustees to fire Joe Paterno via cell phone at 10 p.m., and then the ensuing "riot" downtown after it became known.

This riot of a few thousand people who were downtown when they heard the news consisted of a trash can fire and the toppling of a news van that created serious damage to the van.  But because all the national media were present, the images became something much more like a full scale riot in the minds of the public.

Never mind that five times as many students turned out two days later for a candlelight vigil on the lawn of Old Main to pray for victims of child abuse, and students and alumni in the next several weeks also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for child abuse prevention causes at that Saturday's game and beyond.   That didn't get nearly the publicity or the press images.

 Ziegler states:

"Because the students were roundly castigated for having put football ahead of the victims of child abuse (forget the fact that football had nothing to do with their reaction and due process should have dictated that it was not yet known whether there were indeed victims of a crime), it created a dramatic chilling effect on all protests against what had been done to Paterno. Ironically, had no one on campus cared much for him and there had been no demonstration on his behalf, it would not have become instantaneously politically incorrect (to the absurd point of being equated with supporting child molestation) to even stand up and defend his basic right to due process.

"From that moment on, the student body and the vast majority of the Penn State population were stripped of their fighting spirit. It was as if almost the entire community had been simultaneously emasculated and permanently chastened. They were now more than ripe to be manipulated by the “move on” philosophy which would soon be instituted..."

What is right about Ziegler's perspective is how utterly speechless all of us at Penn State became over what happened in November 2011, with the charges against Sandusky, as well as former administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz.

In fact, to this day it has been difficult for many of us to find a voice to express any sort of dissension over the popular belief, promulgated by the news media and also by Penn State's own Board of Trustees, that there was a major moral failure at Penn State by four Penn State senior leaders - Joe Paterno, Gary Schultz, Tim Curley and Graham Spanier.  Especially if we work at Penn State and know some if not all of these people personally.

I do believe there were certainly failures in how Sandusky was handled, but the true reasons for the failures have not at all been determined.  My immediate suspicion based on reading the initial grand jury presentment was that there were major communication problems between Mike McQueary and the senior administrators with whom Mike McQueary met after Joe Paterno asked him to meet with those administrators to report to them what he saw in that locker room in 2001.

I have been waiting for the courts to help sort out what those communications were, and I have stuck, stubbornly at times, to my belief that people are innocent until proven guilty. 

Sandusky has been proven, through due process and a jury of his peers, to be guilty of child sexual abuse.  The rest of the people charged with criminal behavior in failing to take action against him have not yet had a jury of their peers where testimony and evidence is subject to cross-examination.  The presumption of guilt has therefore not been proven.

I spoke with a colleague at Penn State about the Sandusky scandal not too long ago.  I asked how she was handling the last year, and her response was familiar and telling:  "Like a lot of folks, I read everything there is to read about it and I'm keeping a private diary of my reactions to everything."

It doesn't surprise me that this colleague is keeping thoughts private, at least for now.  I also read everything I can about the Sandusky scandal.  I have many blog articles I have started but failed to complete.  There are many thoughts that I have been tempted to share, but have held back upon.

Anytime I have shared my thoughts in news media, mostly commenting on articles or commentary where blatant lies have been promoted, I have been almost always treated with some sort of rejoinder that suggests that I am one of those so-called "Joe Bots" who only thinks about Penn State football and Joe Paterno's legacy. 

It's discouraging when time and again you suggest that people are innocent until proven guilty and people respond with "where's your sympathy for the victims?" 

It's certainly not that I'm unsympathetic to the victims.  At one point in my early career I worked for the Massachusetts Office for Children and was engaged in training parents on how to detect signs of child abuse and child sexual abuse. There were plenty of horror stories shared at that time as well as plenty of discussion on how to report suspected abuse and what type of evidence is used to convict abusers.

It is, in fact, because of that professional experience that I firmly believe that the victims are served better if we know the full truth about what happened, so that perhaps we can prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again.

So far, the truth about what actually happened at Penn State has been very elusive, and Freeh's stated opinion that there was a cover up to "avoid bad publicity" just doesn't make any sense.

In my view, Penn State and Joe Paterno would have likely been revered for turning in Sandusky, not condemned.  Assuming, of course, that the 2001 incident would have resulted in an arrest.   It might have been investigated and closed just like the 1998 incident was.

There would have been a tiny bump of bad publicity for Penn State, but mostly praise.  And so the charge of avoiding bad publicity is a shallow diagnosis on the part of Freeh with no evidence to back it up.   Of all the conclusions of the Freeh Report, that was the one that was the most aggravating, because it was so transparently an opinion, and not a fact-based conclusion. 
My colleague also shared with me that there is currently a lot of PhD research into the reactions of people to the Sandusky scandal.  There are studies going on about the thousands of emails Penn State has received, of the press reports, of blog posts and comments in the media.  There are likely to be several PhD dissertations awarded over the next few years based on the impact of the Sandusky case and the media coverage that occurred.

Ziegler's recently published book and website that criticize the media narrative of this case are only some of the many stories that will be told about this saga as the years unfold. 

As an avid amateur photographer, I belong to a local photography club.  Two of the club's most active and competent photographers have spent the last year documenting the Sandusky crisis in photos.  Their photojournalism work was presented at the Photographic Society of America's annual convention last year, and written up in one of their monthly PSA Journals.

In April of this year, they showed a five-minute glimpse into just one segment of their continuing photography work in an essay competition, a piece entitled "The Statue".

Their slideshow documents in photos and with an accompanying narrative the weekend in State College when the dismantling of the Paterno statue took place a year ago.   It was an extremely well-done photojournalism essay, and I thought it was the best essay presentation that night and deserved a first place award.

It was also a very sad and compelling five-minute visit back to that awful weekend a year ago. It brought me to tears.

But the judge, a photography professional and a State College resident, did not award anything - not even an honorable mention status - for their work.  Her reason had little to do with the artistic merit of the composition.

She was simply tired of hearing about the Sandusky scandal and expressed her feeling that as a town we had to "move on".  I was quite disappointed that she allowed her emotions to rule out an amazing piece of work that I hope someday that everyone will have the opportunity to see once it's finished.

I don't think Ziegler was right in thinking that the riot alone was the turning point that caused all of us to be silent.  Because with or without the riot, the crime of child sexual abuse is perceived by people to be horrific, even viewed by some as more horrific than murder.

It is nearly impossible for any institution or individual member of an institution to be seen as anything but defensive and insensitive if they try to say anything cautionary about any accusations related to such crimes.

Penn State's Faculty Senate voted not to make its own public statement challenging the Freeh Report and the NCAA sanctions, after two sessions of heated debate about what the Faculty Senate role could be and the purpose of such a statement.  A group of thirty former Faculty Senate chairs did make a public statement decrying many of the false conclusions of the Freeh Report and the NCAA consent decree, especially when it comes to the so-called football culture at Penn State. You may review that statement here.

And so the Faculty Senate formally decided to contribute to the silence Ziegler talks about.  Essentially they left it to outsiders to fight the battle:  groups and people such as Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship,  the Paterno family, John Ziegler, Franco Harris, Ray Blehar, and Eileen Morgan to question and to fight the overall media coverage of this story. 

For me and perhaps for other Penn State employees, my hesitation to discuss the Sandusky scandal has had very little to do with the riot.  My speechlessness has been more the direct result of the firing of Joe Paterno by the Board of Trustees.  The utter disregard for due process and proper channels of communication in the firing of Joe Paterno has sent a message that reverberates loudly for any Penn State employee.

That night I determined that if Joe Paterno could be forced out at a moment's notice, then it was possible that any employee at Penn State was vulnerable for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong forum.  That is, unless one has tenure, which I don't, and even then, one needs to be very careful so as not to hamper one's career.

In February this year I wrote a blog post criticizing the Freeh report conclusions about Penn State's football culture.   The post was widely circulated and praised in tweets by ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge and by Scott Paterno. My first thought when I got that news was to wonder if I would be reprimanded or receive some sort of warning for saying anything in print.  Fortunately nothing happened, so perhaps I'm a bit paranoid.  But even to this day, I do feel a bit constrained in what I say.

As for "moving on", not all of us who live in this town are ready to do that.   Perhaps we don't talk about it as much as we did last year, when the events of last June and July were so devastating and all-consuming.  Then, you couldn't get away from it.  It dominated any discussion with friends or acquaintances or perfect strangers if you were wearing Penn State gear.  As with any crisis, however, you can't be consumed by it all the time.

Probably the most important communication I have received since November 2011 about the Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal happened on the day the news broke.

It was a phone call from my older sister, who lives in the community and worships at the parish near Boston where some of the major Catholic church child sex abuse scandals occurred.  She knew the priests.  Her sons were friends of those who were abused. She described the division in the parish and in the community.  How people cancelled their subscription to The Boston Globe for breaking the story.  How people were shunned for being supporters of the accused priests or for NOT being supporters of the accused priests.  How everyone questioned their religion. It was an awful time for her and her family. 

Her words of advice:  "Carolyn, be patient.  It will take ten years for any perspective to be gained and for things to return to normal.  I'm praying for you and everyone in State College."

There has been a sense of overwhelming sadness and dismay at this entire incident, starting with feelings of horror about what the victims must have experienced,  and then digesting how this crisis has affected Penn State and the lives of people we know.

But my sister's words have been words of comfort to me.  Words that suggest that we are in the middle of a history that is in the process of being written, and that the final result will not be clear for quite a while.

Her words have held me in good stead knowing that eventually there will be a conclusion about this, and that if it takes ten years or more, what matters is that the truth will be known.

Patience is a virtue, they say.  In the meantime, we have no choice but to keep on keeping on.  And no, I won't use the term "move on", tempting as that might be. 

As it is said in Ecclesiastes, "To everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose unto Heaven."  There will be a time for the truth.  It will probably take a while to get there.

No comments:

Post a Comment