Former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, 85, succumbed Jan. 22 to lung cancer. His much-ballyhooed motto for his football program, “Success with honor,” has been a rallying point for those who have defended Paterno’s actions, or inactions, in the face of his program’s sex-abuse scandal.
Others take exception; others view that brand of honor as disgraced.
Paterno’s death has saved him from having to answer to the growing number of accusations from young males who say they were sexually victimized by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno maintained that he “gave full disclosure to his superiors,” according to Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who spoke at Paterno’s memorial service. Knight’s defense of Paterno signals an all-too-common form of denial, the kind of denial that allowed the accused transgressions to cover 15 years.
If Paterno required follow-through from his staff and player, he didn’t demand it of himself. He allowed Sundusky to continue working as his assistant coach, even after he learned of Sandusky’s showering incident with a teenage boy.
This “role model,” who was fired last November, also proved he didn’t care about the kids who were victims, by leading a crowd of supporters outside his home in a “We Are Penn State” chant.
We wonder how Sandusky’s alleged victims feel about that. Maybe they choose to opt out of the “We Are Penn State” worldview.
Paterno isn’t the only one who needs to answer to the victims and their families. In addition to the fired superiors who were sullied by Paterno’s football machine, the Penn State faculty needs to know they are equally culpable for their inactions, as they’ve admitted in news broadcasts that they had heard rumors of Sandusky’s behavior for years and did nothing about it. Their sickening indifference reinforces the notion that maintaining a university brand was more important than the well-being of other, younger human beings.
Child sexual abuse is a hidden epidemic in this country — affecting as many as one in five children — and it cuts across racial and socio-economic lines. Silence, or indifference, incubates the crime.
Agencies like Shepherd’s Counseling Services on Capitol Hill, one of only a few in the country that offers services for male and female adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, will continue to work inconspicuously to heal young victims of sexual abuse, but theirs is a never-ending battle.
Human beings can’t bear too much reality, wrote T.S. Eliot. As long as denial and rhetorical cluelessness like Phil Knight’s control the sexual-abuse conversation, tragically, inexcusably, “We are Penn State.”