One Year Later, What Have We Learned?
It is now exactly one year to the day that Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse. The arrest kicked off the one year that we at Penn State would like to forget most of all. The scandal devastated us, as the school and its symbols we thought we knew seemed to unravel. But we found even in Penn State’s lowest point a source of rallying pride about everything that was and is good about Penn State.
But, more importantly, the past year has taught us innumerable lessons, and important ones at that. From being intimately involved with Onward State and the Penn State news media last fall, to last spring when I studied abroad in England and was very much on the outside looking in, I’ve seen the past year at Penn State through different sets of eyes, though still inextricably connected all the while. And I think I’ve learned more in the past year than perhaps any other.
First and foremost, we can never forget about the victims. They should be our primary concern, as they were not the primary concern of certain high-ranking people at this university. We, as fellow, compassionate human beings, can never allow something like that to happen again, and we must see to it that those who have been abused have smooth roads ahead of them, and that we are always thinking of them. Let Aaron Fisher be a heartbreaking example to us, brave enough to put his human face to the plain-text, impersonal name of Victim 1.
Second, we will never get the whole truth. Ever. I certainly don’t think we will ever have a truth that will be universally accepted. The legal system will soon run its course on Curley, Schultz, and Spanier. Joe Paterno’s legacy will always be cloudy and there will never be agreement on what exactly to do with it. Since he’s gone, we will never hear his side of the story in its entirety, or, as some have speculated, in a court of law. Of course, we must never overlook what he did for Penn State, and how many of us here benefit every day from contributions he made. But we also need to acknowledge the very real and apparent possibility that he had an awful moral failing. And I don’t know how to reconcile the two, and I’m not sure I ever will. But I refuse to let anyone make that appraisal for me but my head and my conscience.
We can’t rush to judgment, and we have to keep open minds. Rushes to judgment occurred at all levels in the past year. Rioters rushed to judgment on November 9, 2011, and the Board of Trustees did as well when they handed down the dismissal of the theretofore most beloved figure in the history of Penn State at 10 p.m. that night. Whether they knew enough to fire him then and there is less than clear, but everyone in State College knew what would happen after that press conference. It surprised none of us, but it sure surprised, and appalled, a lot of the onlookers.
That brought up another question, one that will never have an answer: do we care too much about football? With a stadium fit for 108,000 and annual revenue around $60 million, it’s a very legitimate question. Ostensibly, and according to the Freeh report, the abuse was covered up so that football could prosper. Football was more important to those who represented the University than the welfare of Sandusky’s victims. The NCAA pretty much told us that we cared too much about football.
Too much devotion to an organization or a person one can lead to disappointment, and in this case, grave disappointment. At what point does intense faith and support cross the line into the territory of the “cult” mentality, like many have called Penn State football? Sure, there’s a “culture problem” at every big football school, but that’s just it: it should be a school with football, and not a football school. If the presence and entity of Penn State football was enough to stifle allegations against Sandusky, then that presence needs to be changed accordingly.
There are some who bring attention to Penn State that most of us would rather not have. I’m talking about people with seemingly blind faith in Paterno, even with all the evidence mounting against him. Two rallies for resignation of the Board of Trustees have taken place already, which, while certainly I would disagree with the message, I acknowledge their right to go on. What I absolutely deplore, however, are people who somehow think that the damage done to Penn State’s reputation has outweighed the harm done by Sandusky, the trauma and sheer horror that those young boys and men had to live with and will still have to live with. To try and downplay the victims’ pain and suffering is inexcusable. We can’t sugarcoat it; out of everything else, that’s what happened at Penn State. Foremost, this past year isn’t about Paterno or the NCAA or Spanier; it’s about finding out about the absolutely sickening acts that happened on our campus, committed by one of our own.
And while the onlookers had a right to be upset with us that night of November 9, Penn State has continued to be the butt of jokes and connected to nasty insinuations. We all answered questions at Thanksgiving from eyebrow-raising relatives and friends. We all had to defend what we believed in, and even defend our names because of the school we go to, or went to, with many treating us as if we had been criminals ourselves.
And we learned to take it in stride and still stand tall, pointing out politely that Sandusky didn’t define all of us. But with such broad finger-pointing, the severity of it got to me after a while. With such a terrible failure, pathetic initial response, and seeming abandon of everything Penn State professed to stand for, I had deep, deep doubts about my school.
But we bounced back, immediately holding a candlelight vigil at Old Main with over 10,000 in attendance in support of child abuse victims. The support hasn’t ended there, either; to date, #PSUforRAINN has raised $548,845 in the fight to prevent child abuse. The student body has orchestrated two Blue Outs so far, with enormous success. I will never forget the eerie feeling in Beaver Stadium during the first Blue Out, organized on the fly, on November 12, 2011, against Nebraska, with the team slowly walking onto the field, arm in arm, and one of the loudest “We Are” chants I’ve ever heard.
We still are Penn State. We are a university of over 96,000 students, 500,000 alumni, and 46,000 faculty and staff. And we refuse to be defined by the actions of a few, no matter how high up, who did wrong. I still have faith in Penn State because I know that Penn State is made up of good people who are kind, charitable, and who have moral integrity. Penn State is still a good school, and a good place, and though the scandal made me question that feeling deeply, I’ve relearned that over this past year.