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.

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

  1. Ah, i hate the whole mess. But for me the thumb comes out when the truly innocent and helpless are being harmed. Cheat on your taxes? I may pray for you, preach at you, who knows..but I’ll try to keep the thumb in my pocket. But there has to be a line..and ‘just following procedure’ is no more acceptable here than in any other point in time where ordinary folks were complicit in very bad things…even through simple silence. I can’t judge the coach, assistant, or groundskeeper on spiritual matters…but I am comfortable saying..if you knew this happened…if you even had reasonable suspicion…something this heinous can’t be left to chain of command…start there if you must…but there is an obligation to protect the weak. I’ve said several times today..it’s a danger in group behavior..the Catholic church fell victim to this phenomenon, and may never recover their credibility. If the report of the grand jury is accurate, that’s enough for me. The adage proved true…evil flourished because good men remained silent.

    • But my point, Beth, is that we don’t have the right to use the thumb. We may be sickened and troubled and do what we can to see that it doesn’t happen where we are. Let’s wait and allow the discovery to continue.

  2. “something this heinous can’t be left to chain of command…start there if you must…but there is an obligation to protect the weak.” Vigilanties, mercinaries, mobs, and Nancy Grace live by that code.
    The chain of command includes Police, investigators,prosecuters, etc.
    Our society is so anxious to see the famous and those in position of power fail, we have no patience for facts. With the internet, talk shows, “news” commentaries, justice has taken a back seat to opinions.

  3. But the chain of command had obviously failed…that’s when you have to go beyond it…not form a lynch mob…but maybe drop a dime to CPS…or just say..hey boss…how was that situation handled? I think we do have the right to say…’should have done more, pushed harder when you saw nothing had come of the first attempt’ but of course, truly, Joe Paterno, for me, has less culpability than those who knew for sure something’s bad was going on…I don’t condemn him as a person, or a career, or a leader..but he made a very large mistake, and I think it’s reasonable to say so…that applies to everyone from the custodian to the president. We all make errors, none worse than others in the sight of God, so again, I won’t judge him..but I will judge the action and say..not enough…of course I realize that child welfare is an exceptionally hot button for me, which clouds my vision. And for the record..the media is the very last step I would take.. No nancy grace for me, not ever ;-)

  4. It’s not just a little ironic that in Italy the thumbs up (now…contemporaneously) means something people in the USA use their tall finger to express.

    There’s something about the all the money and power in football particulally that can turn people, institution, and even fans, into monsters. It’s been a feeding frenzy in the media, yes, but trust and authority was gravely abused by anyone who knew and did nothing. Consequently, the black eye on PSU will be profound…that’s what happens with indecency, or coverups, or negligence.

  5. Thumbs up; thumbs down. The point that should not be lost in all of this is this is the perfect opportunity for all of us to learn that there is a cost involved in doing only what is required. We need to be on watch at all times. Satan will always be ready to strike where there is weakness and let’s face it, we are all weak. But we can also all be strong in Christ. We need to do more than what is required. I am sad for Jo Pa, but I am much sadder for the little boys whose lives have been changed because we did only what was required. Sorry for the coach. Sorry for Penn State. Sorry for the student body and the fans. But sorry doesn’t come close to how I feel for the boys. Sandusky may be shown to have been a victim himself…wished there had been intervention for him. Now we are a little wiser, a little more vigil and hopefully a lot more intentional in seeing that other children are kept safe. If the cycle of sexual abuse is ever going to be stopped, we need to work together – with the authorities whose job it is to keep little children and all of society safe. We need to scream “foul” at the top of our lungs. This will serve the purpose to put all of us on notice: You better do all you can, and then a little more…I’d hate to be the one who could of, should of, would of…but didn’t.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I just wonder if we are ready to apply the same standard to everyone who observes drunken or texting drivers, parents verbally or physically abusing their chidren in public places, and everything else we fallen people observe in this world–or in the case of Joe, are told about. If we’re not ready for this, we should recognize that Joe Paterno’s sentence was unjust. I don’t always know how to be a redemptive presence; I do know that I accomplish nothing by simply cursing the darkness.

  6. Yes, I apply that standard to seeing a child physically abused, a drunken or reckless driver. I have and will continue to call the highway patrol on reckless or apparently impaired drivers. The line is clear to me when innocents are harmed or at risk. Others may have a different standard, but that’s where mine is set. And while it may seem unjust, being fired at the end of a long career, with financial security, and the love and respect of at least hundreds of thousands, is not so big a price. It stings, I’m sure, and it may not be fair, I don’t know for sure, but it simply pales in comparison to the pain of the victims and their families. An ugly thing happened, and for anything else to be the focus right now is distasteful to me.

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