What to Do with the Thumb? Thoughts on The Sandusky Scandal

Yes, this is a different sort of post, though it does fit in with the stated purpose of the blog–interpeting events through Christian narrative. But it is also prompted by what strike me as troubling and conflicted cries in the wake of announcements coming from Harrisburg about events at Penn State University.

Let me set this out in the beginning for the benefit of those readers who do not know me personally. I am a Penn State grad and proud of it; it is, ironically to some, the place where my faith was freed to think. I am a life member of the Alumni Association and currently of part of the Nittany Lion Club. I have followed its football fortunes and misfortunes, including the times it was robbed of national championships. I have been to most of the home games over the past eight seasons and even joined journeyed to the Rose Bowl a couple of years ago. So no pretensions of total objectivity here.

Now the hard part. What do I do with my thumb? You know, the opposable appendages that separate humans from other species. We use them for a wide variety of purposes, many of which make life as we know it possible. Aside from making and using tools of all kinds, however, we also seem to employ the thumb as a signal of our reactions, dispositions, and feelings. For instance, there is the familiar up or down to indicate approval or disapproval, most famously tied to the saving or taking of the life of a defeated gladiator. There’s the placing of this wonderful appendage on the nose, accompanied by a wave of the remaining portion of the hand to indicate disrespect or dismissal; and then there’s the upward extended thumb thrust over the shoulder in baseball, indicating “you’re out!”

What is common among the above is what such uses of the thumb indicate about another factor that sets us apart from mere animals–the making and expressing of moral judgments. In our supposedly more advanced society, we all sit in the emperor’s box and react to any situation our arena called television brings before us. We’re all enlightened individuals, all qualified to make judgments on all sorts of cases in which we have no more personal involvement than an emperor with a gladiatorial match. We see ourselves as having the right or even the duty of casting the thumb in one direction or another, even when we are hopelessly ill-informed or uninformed about the matter at hand.

Witness the frenzy–no other word will do–over the Jerry Sandusky allegations. I say allegations not because I do not think there is substance behind them (I’d love to have reasonable doubt here), but because we have this “innocent until proven guilty” mantra guiding our courts. That same mantra, of course, is a total farce when it comes to the individual judgments we somehow feel obligated to pass. We do not wait for proof; we settle for any unconfirmed report that supports our subjective preference for what we want to be the case. We thumb the nose at actual deliberation over collected, tangible facts. That’s understandable with regard to Sandusky; less so when trying to weigh the actions or inactions of those who came upon knowledge of the incidents.

None of us really knows who said what to whom and when they said it. We make our speculation according to previously formed opinions regarding the people involved, then filter in or out any pieces of rumor/gossip/evidence/opinion that will support this reading, and then we will put our thumb in the air accordingly. For many, it is difficult to accept a contrary verdict even when all the facts become known. Let us not forget that whatever culpability anyone at Penn State has in the handling of this case, it was precipitated by one man’s heinous actions. That man was not a university employee, i.e., not a member of the coaching staff, having left the team three years earlier (a fact conspicuously missing from NBC’s report on the Nightly News today, Nov. 8). One of those actions was witnessed by someone then a graduate assistant to Joe Paterno; he has since been added to the fulltime staff. He reported to Paterno, who reported to the Athletic Director, following the chain of command specifically spelled out in policy manuals. Apparently, the report went nowhere from there for some time.

The question that has overwhelmed everything else in this case has been whether Joe Paterno did enough; wasn’t there was a moral obligation, a higher standard he ought to have followed? This is where it gets sticky. Who is in charge of administering the higher standard? What does it entail? What are the penalties appropriate for failing to follow it, or for following it partially? How are we to know? Who does the reporting of whether or not it has been met? Again, I don’t know what Paterno was told or what he reported–and neither do any of the rest of us. But I do know that thumbs have been flying nonetheless.

What about others involved, especially those who knew and did not report to police as required by law? I don’t know; let’s wait and find out. Nothing is gained and much is potentially lost if rashness born out of disgust rules the day.

What makes this a subject for this blog is our cherished “right” to wield the thumb on such matters. It seems to me that Jesus had something to say about how we judge others. Read carefully here. This is not a statement regarding the rightness or wrongness of any individual’s decisions in this matter. That will be plain enough in due time, just as it is already plain that Sandusky’s actions were reprehensible. We’re aware that they are horribly wrong. But especially when it comes to passing sentence on the other individuals, we need to step back. The university extended to a non-profit organization dedicated to giving assistance to underprivileged kids the use of university facilities. It did not have to do that. Thumbs up. In so doing, it unwittingly gave opportunity for something else to happen; and even after the initial report, access continued for Sandusky. Thumbs way down.

As for Paterno, it is deeply grieving to me that so many people are ready to cast him out with no regard to his service to Penn State on many levels. How many times has he earned an upward thumb? To think that he would be cast out before the facts are all sorted is unconscionable.

But here’s my real point in writing on this subject: why do we insist on wielding the thumb of judgment–not just on what should be done in a specific case, but on the people involved themselves? We are complicated beings, each of us operating with a unique set of circumstances and hurts, successes and failures, holes in our hearts, and wounds in our psyches which will never be apparent to anyone. Even Sandusky. That’s what sin does. It worms in, sets up shop, and explodes into a large mess of collateral damage, never being limited in the scope or extent of its victimizing. Here it may well destroy the work and contributions of several men, tarnish a university, bring to naught a long-standing reputation, and rob many people of their sense of pride and identity in Penn State. And that is all in addition to what takes place in the lives of the boys who were violated in the first place, whose pain we know to be of a sort that tends to foster repeating the same crimes on others later in life. I hate sin. I’m reminded of that in these past days.

I also recognize sin in me, knowing that were things a little different I could easily have become one deserving the hatred of others and the judgment of God. That fact alone is teaching me to put my thumb in my pocket. And pray.