I’ve followed the Jerry Sandusky case with a bit of self-protective distance until yesterday. Revelation after revelation exposed both horrific child abuse and an even worse phenomenon: a Code of Silence that protected a football program while it sacrificed the safety and welfare of young men. Not only did the football coach I’d so admired uphold the Code: so did the athletic director and the Penn State University president.
For my entire life, my identity has consisted of two major facets: athlete, and intellectual. I admired Joe Paterno and his football program. His players seemed to abide by high moral standards, and they graduated.
Like so many heroes of mine, Paterno proved weaker than I expected. Despite knowing that a boy was raped by Sandusky, a PSU coach, in the locker room showers, Paterno did not report this to the police. He figured that the Program, with all of its heft and power, could handle it internally. The Code prevailed. The Code of Silence.
Three things were sacrificed to this Code: the abused boy; subsequent Sandusky victims; and the psyche of abuse victims throughout the world.
I try to write about this and my brain shuts down right HERE. Grief takes over. I’m so confused.
I’m spinning. Sorry. Where was I? Victims and how we feel when the authorities protect abusers. THAT. Yes. My chest grips me and I cannot access words, but I will try. Those of us who suffered abuse suffered something much worse: silence. Our own silence, and the silence of people who knew that we were abused. This hurts worse than the touch of hands that had no right to touch our bodies.
It’s so hard to explain. I tried to advocate for shutting down the PSU football program last night. My poster, now taken down, said:
Stop Child Abuse. Shut down the PSU Football Program.
Sarcastic and offended PSU supporters attacked me, but as a friend noted, the discussion was pretty civilized. You know why it was civilized? Because I kept it so. I swallowed my anger and took care of everyone else. To the PSU grads who felt attacked, who mourned the potential loss of their beloved white and navy-clad football players, I said I was sorry.
And I was sorry for their pain. But I wasn’t sorry for advocating the shutting down of a football program. The student-athletes who get a free ride at PSU can transfer to other universities, and be paid to run up and down a field of green for four years. They will receive a free education.
I’m not sorry for believing that shutting the program down will help shatter the Code. Shut it down. Send a message to future coaches and athletic directors and university presidents: your team is not above the law. If you protect the abusers, you will suffer consequences. It’s too bad that the consequences will affect players and fans and alumnae. But we live in an interconnected world. We do not own the teams we follow.
Ownership. Funny, that it comes back to ownership. The rights of each person begin where the rights of another person end. Sandusky violated those boundaries when he raped that boy in the showers. From that crime rained down shards that cut so many others. And so much of it could have been prevented, if the men who knew of the crime reported it to the authorities. Those men represent a university, and since they acted on the university’s behalf, the university must bear the responsibility and face the punishment.
Am I disinterested? No. This case means a lot to me. My Little El cries out, “No one ever took care of me,” and the mother I’ve become sees her own boys shivering in the corner of some university’s showers ten years in the future. My anger and my pain and my grief rage inside me right now, and I am struggling against it, trying not to self-destruct by burning too hot.
This anger and grief is crippling me today. I feel scared and alone, and yet I know I can’t sit with this too long. Soon. Soon I will rise and move and run again. Soon. This fire burns too hot inside, but I will rise. Soon.