I’m sitting here, trying to finish a paper for the National Women’s Studies Association Conference this week, but my thoughts are with the child sexual abuse scandal now unfolding at Penn State. Here’s a few things going through my mind.
I’m not a Penn State fan, but I am a college football fan. I’m a child of Knoxville, Tennessee, who became an alum of the University of Tennessee, under the shadow of Neyland Stadium and Thompson-Boling Arena, Volunteer football and Lady Vol basketball. I’m also an academic, bound for a career in university life, currently living in Bloomington, Indiana, a small college town comparable to State College with a legendary basketball program arguably as storied Penn State’s football program.
Although my focus is academic, I believe in college sports. I believe they do good things. I believe that they can fit into the educational mission of the university, not only through the teaching of complicated athletic skills that require both mind and body, but also through the teaching of important moral and ethical lessons, on and off the field. I think that the right coaches make all this learning happen. This includes Tennessee’s own Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Head Summitt, who for me epitomizes the best in collegiate athletic leadership, as well as coaches like Joe Paterno, who has essentially become a figurehead for Penn State’s athletic and academic reputation.
I am also Catholic. I understand that Paterno is Catholic too. In light of this scandal, being Catholic calls up two seemingly different but actually interconnected elements: 1) the Church’s unconscionable cover-ups of pervasive child sexual abuse, and 2) the Church’s conscionable moral code. The Church did the wrong thing. Paterno did the wrong thing. However, both still have codes that prescribe the right behaviors. Neither the Church nor Paterno can go back and stop the abuse that occurred due to their wrong action, but admitting that they did the wrong thing is still part of making things right.
According to the NEW YORK TIMES, Penn State is already planning Paterno’s exit. The exit alone, however, is not enough. Paterno needs to admit his role in perpetuating the abuse. I hope this happens. I hope it happens for his sake, as a part of the preservation of his legacy and the moral code that he helped to create in Penn State’s athletic culture.
More importantly though, I hope it happens for the collective recovery of child sexual abuse survivors. This includes more than the ones who were injured by Sandusky. It is important that all childhood sexual abuse survivors see that dominant and predominately masculine cultures like the Church and football can admit culpability as a way to face the problem and ideally begin the steps to eradicate it. This is important not only for the recovery of survivors, but also for the future safety of other vulnerable populations.
Plenty of other people have had valuable things to say about this, particularly Michael Tomasky in THE DAILY BEAST and Michael Weinreb in GRANTLAND.Tomasky’s peice is particularly helpful at elucidating the moral and legal quandary, while Weinreb’s piece gives a thoughtful view of the scandal in light of his relationship to State College and Penn State. Lots of people will have other things to say as the scandal continue to unfold. I just hope that whatever happens, healing and justice occurs to those who most need it.