When they say
“There is peace and security,”
then suddenly destruction
will come upon them,
as labor pains upon
a pregnant woman,
and there will be no escape.
~1 Thessalonians 5:3
The Defensive Coordinator at a place that plays blue-collar/smash mouth football like Penn State surely appears heroic. Jerry Sandusky’s “Linebacker U” defense was known for its strength and dominance.
There were also simultaneously whispers around college football that Jerry and his “Second Mile” charity were less than heroic. Now that the scandal at Penn State is out and heads are rolling, people are comparing notes on the things they had heard through the years about Sandusky’s abhorrent patterns of child sexual abuse.
Now we know that there were people who knew more than whispers and rumors—we know there were witnesses and that they included some of his co-workers, even police who heard Sandusky himself admit that he showered with ten year olds. Sandusky told a mother who confronted him about showering with her son with the police hiding in the other room, “I wish I were dead.” (NPR, “All Thing Considered” on 11/11/11).
What is more tragic, a man who serially destroyed the lives of young boys he said he wanted to help or all the people who knew and even saw what he was doing and let it continue? As a survivor of sexual violence myself I can say that all involved are in the grip of deep demonic distortions that leave the victims forever diminished in their ability to be fully alive. Candle light vigils are small consolation for the years of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, isolation, depression, anger and deep woundedness that victims of sexual abuse suffer—especially when the abuse is suffered during childhood. There is no way to make this right—even if Sandusky gets his due from the justice system.
People wonder how a place like Happy Valley, with a Coach like Joe Paterno, could be a place where these horrific things could happen.
When the students rioted it surely wasn’t just about losing JoePa. They were losing much more than that—they were losing their good feelings about a place they had trusted, they were losing people who helped their lives make sense, people who gave them dreams to dream. They were losing a whole sense of purpose and place. They thought they had “peace and security” in a place like Happy Valley, then “suddenly destruction will come upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape.” (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
They didn’t want to think that such a horrible thing could happen in their house, in their family, under the watch of the one they revered and respected. It is a chilling reality to face when we realize the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt described it during the Nazi trials after World War II. When evil looks like us we want to somehow otherize it and somehow deny it is real. We want to go back to the way things were before we knew the truths that tell us we might need to change ourselves, too. It is easier if evil comes from monsters, from people who look different than we do, from those who live on the margins.
But the crumbling has gained momentum and there is nothing that can stop it now.
Indeed in all of college football a tide is gaining strength that is uncovering abuses and excesses of all types. And this tide toward revealing corruption is all around us in the larger world—things are not going to be the same again. Those who have suffered from the abuses, the excesses, and the inequities are gaining strength from hearing the voices of others who are saying “no more.”
If we really want to learn something from this tragedy, we’ll learn that concentrations of unchecked power, hierarchies that rest untouchable and beyond reproach, institutions that are “too big to fail,” and cults of personality create conditions for disasters like the one at Penn State. The audible for the football world to call has to do with learning new skills that involve how to share power and how to embrace dissonant voices so that we can hear and heed hard truths.
The “sudden destruction” that has taken hold in college football these days has actually been a long time coming. And like a woman gripped in labor whose best bet is to surrender to the labor pains and breathe, our sports-loving society could do well to accept that something old has to die so that something new can be born. And hopefully things will never be the same again.