When the Piling On Is Over

I’ve tried mightily to resist. The issues regarding my alma mater have been beaten to death in so many places, by so many people, so many times that it seems pointless to add another few words. But the resistance has lost.

My intended focus, however, is on what we as a society will do with the experience, and more so with how we will have handled the experience after a few months or years will have passed. Presently, the very suggestion that there needs to be a bit of perspective brought to the discussion is itself met with charges of being soft on child sexual predators, having head securely buried in sand, having drunk the Penn State Kool-Aid, ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. The idea that some semblance of perspective is needed is obvious to anyone associated with the Penn State University and to anyone else who cares about the kind of people we would like to be in this culture.

There is due outrage, to be sure. First, outrage toward Jerry Sandusky; then outrage that seems to be of an even higher order directed at those individuals singled out as having worked diligently to cover up the facts of the incidents. Even if all the interpretations included in the Freeh report are true (there is reason to question some of the findings as under-determined by the evidence), the rate at which people have been lining up to paint everyone associated with Penn State as somehow complicit in the events is staggering. If we weren’t directly involved, all of us are at least deemed guilty of being suckers for the fraud of the football program and its evil, conniving head coach (right, David Jones? Jason Whitlock?).

For the record, I am not returning my degree in protest. I’m not even relinquishing my season tickets. Penn State, contrary to the cynical remarks made even by people in the state, is not football. Not even close. It has been, and remains, a world-class university with a half million graduates serving in all corners of the world in all disciplines. We studied there as much, and in some cases as little, as students anywhere else. We had competent professors, more than adequate facilities and resources; we debated the issues of the day, formed lasting friendships, argued inconclusively at ridiculous hours of the morning, got into trouble, went streaking, protested the Vietnam War and the government research contracts. And on a few Saturdays in the fall term, we gathered for the fun of a major college football game, played by guys who really were fellow students. And it hasn’t changed all that much (for the good of all, the streaking craze didn’t last). The suggestion, however, that Penn State is all about football is an affront to every professor and administrator who did her or his job in teaching, and to every student who buckled down enough to graduate and contribute to family, community, and society. Football was an event, a big one; but it wasn’t (and isn’t) the sum total of college for anyone. Personally, it was the place where I was introduced to the intellectual history and vitality of Christianity, a discovery without which my faith would have evaporated. It’s special. So we continue going back, yes for a good football game and the whole aura of those fall Saturdays, but also because of our unwillingness to relinquish ties to what is really Penn State.

The ranters would also have it that Penn State should not be allowed to play football again, at least for a few seasons. So in order to properly punish a deceased man, a displaced president, and two other administrators, we should take away the employment of hundreds of other people, damage the businesses of scores of others, and take away the scholarships of players now on the team, forcing them to disrupt their education to go elsewhere. For maybe the first and only time, I find myself in agreement with James Carville on that one. But if that would undue the damage done to the boys once under Sandusky’s terror, so be it; alas, it would not.

But let’s get back to that perspective question. What will we have found out about ourselves as a society when there has been a little more distance between the horrible events (and the mishandling thereof) and our thoughts about them? For one, I would hope that we will have learned that sportswriters make lousy moral authorities. It is sickeningly ironic that some of the very ones who decry the importance of sports in our cultural life are the ones who have taken it upon themselves to make sure it stays that way. And the same ones are unsatisfied to tell us what happens on the field, but assume the right to tell us what ought to be done about any and all of the moral issues that arise, all, of course, without ever studying ethics, logic, moral reasoning, etc.

More importantly, I trust we will have been reminded that we are moral creatures, and are so necessarily by nature. There are very few taboos remaining in our culture; most of the ones largely recognized by all have to do with sexuality, particularly with children. We are right to react against violations such as those committed by Sandusky, and against efforts to shield the discovery and prosecutions thereof. But are these the only (dare I use the term) sins that disturb us? Could it be that our moral instincts have so atrophied that little other than the most obvious violations arouse our disapproval?

And perhaps we will be bold enough to learn to be honest with ourselves. We are all both capable of significant good, heroic, and altruistic actions and yet prone to great darkness at the same time. In Luther’s terms, simul justus et peccator, simultaneously just and sinful. We don’t handle this well about ourselves or about other people. We want to read all the good things in light of the evil deeds others have done (David Jones, Patriot News, loves this approach); or we minimize the evil and view it as insignificant in light of the good. We wear the mantle of moral judge poorly, undoubtedly because it is the vestment of another greater than ourselves. We would do well to remember this, even as we attempt to discern where the violations are and what must be done about them for the betterment of all.

And, as has been noted by many commentators, we should hope to have learned to take better care of and more interest in the welfare and treatment of others. One wonders how things might have been different if this had been a concern a little more than a generation ago, when Jerry was young. Who did things to him about which he may have been told to be quiet, as was the approach of a not-so-long-ago time? Monsters are seldom born; they are created. Let’s not make any more of them and do what grace allows to transform those in the process of being made.