I grew up—and still live—in Penn State country just outside of State College. Nearly everyone knows the area by a different name: Happy Valley. Reasons abound as to why one would be happy living in the heart of Pennsylvania, but the main reason for the colloquialism is that Penn State has been a nationally esteemed place to raise a family. We have been dubbed the “least stressful,” ranked 19th among the “50 smartest places to live,” and counted the number one “safest small city in America.” The idea that there were streets I shouldn’t drive down was foreign to me.
But a congenial-seeming town filled with congenial-seeming people produced a bit of a moralistic facade, propped up by a town pride which could sometimes manifest as indignation at the sins of “those other places.” We forgot that evil is not rooted in a place, but in personhood. And the most dangerous evil is that which appears outwardly good, but is, in fact, rooted in the same corrupting foundation of selfishness. The myth of Jerry Sandusky’s intentions with the 2nd Mile charity—and even of Joe Paterno’s no-nonsense tenure—have been exposed, and as a result, so too has the mythical moralism of Happy Valley.
Just before entering the fourth grade, I moved with my family to Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. The small town is about a seven-minute drive on the neighboring highway to Beaver Stadium and Penn State University, home of the Nittany Lions and the winningest, most highly thought of coach in college football history. For most of my life, Centre County has been where I have called home. Though I did not attend Penn State University, I have always been a loyal fan of the team and an admirer of the “Public Ivy” school. After earning my master’s degree and getting married, I am back in Centre County with my wife and our son. Living in Penn State country with our little boy, I can tell you that the past few days have been more than a little unsettling in the midst of explosive child molestation allegations that, in different ways, involve all of the University’s biggest names.
The former Penn State football team defensive coordinator and one-time heir apparent to Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, has been charged with sexual assault of at least eight minor male children, occurring over the course of several years both before and after his retirement from coaching. It appears his access to the boys was the direct result of the “Second Mile” program that he started—a program aimed at helping underprivileged children. Two University officials have been charged for not giving all of the information they knew about the scandal and for not contacting police when they first heard a chilling eyewitness account of a sodomized 10 year old in a coaches’ shower in an empty facility on a Friday night. While not in legal trouble, Joe Paterno’s moral credibility is being skewered by the media for his role of omission in not “doing more” than reporting knowledge of the incident to his superiors when he first heard of it. To some degree, perhaps varying in explicit detail, the eyewitness who is now a coach on the team, Paterno, and two other Penn State officials all knew about the horrific incident as early as 2002, and they were familiar with allegations against Sandusky dating back to 1998 (Sandusky unexpectedly retired in 1999). Sandusky was on campus using the facilities as recently as two weeks ago.
Two days before the scandal hit the news, I received for my birthday a framed picture of my 9-month-old son wearing a Penn State sweatshirt. The picture, sitting on my desk beside my laptop as I write this, elicits in me a broad range of emotions. On the one hand, growing up in State College fosters a unique place-identity relationship. There is a sense of wholesomeness, family, generational devotion, commitment, and solidarity. Two days ago, that picture reminded me of New Year’s Day bowl games at my Grandma’s house, all of us packed in the living room cheering on the team as a family. It reminds me of working the ticket booth with my dad before the game, then going in the stadium and watching with him on the field. It is now one of the most tragically ironic mementos in my home.
It is this irony that has the Blithedale Farm formerly known as Happy Valley disoriented. We have much to be proud of, but for too long we have lived within the self-enclosed delusion that our place—and the identity we took from it—was the paragon of righteousness. This has been the often-subtle problem with the Penn State culture and its iconic, fatherly representative, Paterno: Much of the undeniable good that has come from this college town, rooted in the best of intentions, has in many ways produced a white-washed shell of itself.
Paterno, who some have described as a kind of deity with his own mythos, has long been the face of not just the University and the town, but also, some would argue, the whole state. He was often cited as the embodiment of “all that is right with college football.” He prided himself on making sure the program was run with moral conviction, on making sure his players cared about academics, and on making sure that doing things “the right way” always preceded winning. It seems more than plausible that Paterno—and certain people within the University—became more concerned with preserving this image than with doing all that they could to pursue justice for the helpless children who, it is fair to note, were dissociated from the program, and therefore, more easily expendable, so long as Sandusky seemed to be out of their hands—or, at least out of the spotlight.
I do feel sorry for Paterno to a degree; I believe much of what he has done for the University, for the area, and for young men has been tremendous and exemplary. To be clear: Paterno did not commit the same crime, but this does not in any way excuse the culpability of his response to the knowledge of Sandusky and how the quality of that response affected any victim since 2002. I feel sorry for Paterno in the sense that I wish he had done more, so that he could have finished his career in a way befitting most of the other choices he made in his life, but I do not feel that his firing is somehow unfair or undeserved. Excuses would only illustrate further the culture of cover up at Penn State—and the tendency to be more concerned with football and image than with the humble, repentant, and transparent gestures necessary in the aftermath of a scandal.
The theme that has surrounded talk of Paterno and his colleagues the last 48 hours is telling: What was done was “not enough.” Indeed, that is often the case for all of us. But the revelation of humanity’s moral shortcomings is a humbling shock to the system for the self-righteous person or the community that perceives itself to be a paradise of sorts. Moralism is just as problematic as explicit immorality; both are rooted in a self-absorbed pride that says either “I am good” or “I can do what I want.” The nature of this pride is rooted in the self-deception to make oneself out to be a god. For the moralist to keep up appearances, he or she must soon take up compromising tactics to maintain the unreality of his or her self-righteousness. Sooner or later, the facade of morality becomes explicit for what it really is—be it a sex scandal, a cover up of a sex scandal, or a violent riot.
People have been quick to dump burning coals on everyone involved in the scandal, and rightly so. I would hope that child molestation would still be a sharply foul odor to our moral senses. But we should also question the cultural conditions that might lead a man into a downward spiral to the point where he, a 60 year old, could sexually exploit and damage adolescent boys. Make no mistake, if Sandusky is a monster, then our culture is a horror story: 1 in 6 boys are molested by age 16, and 1 in 4 girls are molested by 18. If, at root, the problem includes pride, selfishness, and the propensity to view other people as objects for our own personal pleasure, then perhaps we need to consider not just the monstrosity that Jerry Sandusky devolved into, but the foundational conditions for this monstrosity that are also at root in all of us—even in Happy Valley.
I only know all of this because the teachings of Christianity have confronted my own moralism. It is a recurring confrontation. It has held a mirror up to my own pride and self-absorption—my own tendency to self-righteously compare myself to others. But I’ve found that recognizing my essential sickness was the first humbling step toward a continuing process of being restored to a more authentic goodness: one that is rooted in genuine love for the other and is forthright with a genuine acknowledgement of my own inability to do things “the right way” apart from love for God. This scandal has left me feeling very sad and hopeful that grace would come in the midst of this destruction. Only His grace can restore the scars left on the victimized children or offer forgiveness to the people who failed in their moral obligation.
At a candlelight vigil on campus Friday night, with over 10,000 students in attendance, new roots appeared to be laid when the main speaker stepped onto Old Main and said, “We are Penn State. And we are hurting. And we are sorry.”