As much as I read your wonderful work, I rarely post at BHGP, so I don't know the full rules. I realize this probably isn't the place for what I've written, and by now we probably have guidelines for posting about the Penn State situation. This probably should be a response to a current post, but it's potentially controversial and long. Too long (won't read). I won't hold it against anyone if this disappears tomorrow, but I hope that if you make it through the last few paragraphs, you'll understand why I need to get this off my chest. Much of it may beat dead horses, but at least part may offer new perspective directly relevant to the University of Iowa. I've waited until this week to make a public comment about the Penn State situation, but the implications of this post are keeping me awake at night. I need to write this, even if I've also needed a few drinks to do so and it might not be as coherent as it should. I hope you'll forgive me for that, as well as for posting it here. I'm writing to the best of my recollection and hope I'm not doing a disservice to any of the people involved. Everything here is in good faith.
"The NCAA tells you the problem was Penn State, when, in actuality, the problem is this entire system."
Vint's editorial is open to endless discussion, but there is so much truth in this statement. No matter how just or misdirected the NCAA (and public) blood lust, it's lunacy to assume this is a problem unique to one football culture, simply because fans unaware of wrongdoing revered a coach with a pristine record in an era where most coaches and administrators face scrutiny from known histories of corruption. I couldn't care less whether Penn State loses football games, but I can't swallow the hypocrisy of some commentaries I've read around the internet. "It happened because they placed too much trust in respected figures. It happened because they never believed it could happen to them. Since we know better, it could never happen here." This brand of reasoning is not only naive, it ignores the entire lesson of the scandal.
How long ago was it that BHGP published an open letter demanding our president's head over an alleged mishandling of sexual assault by football players, calling it not a football but a human issue? Obviously, Cedric Everson is hardly the monster we've judged Jerry Sandusky to be. Does it make me more receptive to arguments that the culture at Penn State was unusual, though? One major difference in our situation was that the spotlight was on Iowa quickly enough for finger pointing. With the familiar misrepresentation and shoddy reporting, I don't want to think about untangling that mess a decade later. PSU's guilty parties had time for their bungling to snowball because discretion meant no oversight. In some form, the procedure that subverted justice there exists at any university and almost any institution. It's called a chain of command.
In this case, the public culture some people hold responsible was subverted by a private procedure. Please don't conflate the two. They influence each other, but it's a mistake to assume that overtly reshaping the former will necessarily change the latter. Compliance pressure may keep this university on the straight and narrow, but it doesn't alter the basic power structure designed to handle problems that require discretion. The argument that a coach had too much power is pointless, because someone is at the top of any chain. As long as that person is the wrong person, it doesn't matter what his position is. Whether Paterno or Spanier won a power struggle is irrelevant, assuming a struggle ever occurred. The point is that any organization with corrupt people in such a short chain of command would've been screwed by default. Remember, it only took four. One to make the decision and three too weak to challenge it. Four people, and as long as the institution as a whole wasn't aware of the problem, there was nothing it could do. The perpetrators may have been stupid enough to use accessible accounts for their halfassedly veiled communication, but they were otherwise smart enough to shut up, or we'd have known about this ten years ago.
I don't want to hear about the whole of Penn State University deserving this any more than I'd want to hear about my current department being corrupt if four people among thousands committed a heinous crime. Can you imagine your reaction to being associated with that? This kind of generalization, the kind the NCAA is making by leaving the school's head on a pike as an example, is an insult to people who had nothing to do with the crime. This is why we have courts of law to punish the actual people responsible, which the NCAA is indisputably incapable of doing, now that Spanier & Co. is unemployed. Good may come of the sanctions or of the example. However, to suggest that the NCAA has punished those responsible, or that they've punished only those responsible (when unrelated, private donors will likely be coerced into paying a significant fine to defend the institution holding their degree) is to deploy the same blind eye I've heard so much about.
I would argue the same to anyone who believes that Sandusky's crime escalated into an unprecedented scandal due to an unprecedented reaction. This essentially includes the NCAA, whose sanctions seem more directed at the cover-up by then-current university employees than the crimes committed by a former employee. I do not agree with the NCAA's suggestion that they've minimized collateral damage. Considering the direct targets are out of reach, the only damage they've produced is collateral. Regardless, the crimes committed in a Penn State locker room might be peerless at a public university, but it's hard for me to imagine the same is true of the crimes committed in their administration building.
Why is the system the problem? Because whether the NCAA wants to admit it or not, this is not an athletic scandal. I've seen polarized analyses characterizing this as athletic or criminal, but it's more than that. This is a business scandal. A university scandal will always be a business scandal as long as millions are at stake. Not only is that not unique to Penn State or even football culture, the financial implications are a factor the NCAA has no ability to change.
I see so many people comparing this cover-up to problems at other universities. From the beginning, I never understood it that way. The first cover-up comparisons that came to my mind were corporate abuses. I never thought about "University of ______." I thought of Enron, etc. The cover-up wasn't about Sandusky. His public perception mattered only so much as it influenced the bottom line. Whether we're talking ticket sales, fines, university recruitment, or civil suits, it was about money. That might be obvious, but it doesn't seem to strike people as obvious that any institution is vulnerable, so long as it faces similar financial repercussions. Does your institution have a chain of command and financial interest? Your institution is susceptible. I'm less frustrated by the NCAA's own reaction of frustration than by the reasoning that led them to intervene in a matter where the both the criminals and the causes are outside their reach. I certainly hope the recent verdict will make some difference, but I'm not optimistic enough to think it will change a basic human truth: people cover their asses.
I'm a graduate of the UI School of Music, which recently faced the exposé of alleged sexual harassment/abuse by a faculty member of whom I was personally fond. (If you want to know details, search the Daily Iowan from 2008.) Many students in the department had heard rumors before any lawsuit. One night, a reporter from the DI called. She was researching an article and disclosed that no one would discuss it with her. I don't know how many people she'd interviewed, but I do know a common issue was that anyone she might've talked to was unwilling to risk false allegations to make a public statement. I understand that a courthouse is a very different place from a public newspaper, but when you're the only person making a major allegation that public figures might dispute, there's a consistent issue in both cases. I gave the reporter some background and asked her to print only what I could verify, which was that I had not personally witnessed any misbehavior. The day some miniscule, quotable version of my statement appeared on the front page was the day that professor took his life. I was talking to a friend about the dilemma when I found out. Another faculty member I respected thanked me for what I'd said when I attended services a few weeks later. He told me the professor was keenly aware of public reaction, and that my comments must have meant a great deal to him. And all I could think was, "That tepid bullshit I couldn't commit to because I liked the guy but was afraid to make a statement when I didn't have the facts?" I don't know whether what I did was right. Should I have made a stronger statement to encourage a man who had been cut off from nearly any personal support system? Should I have been more forthcoming about the rumors? Should I have just left it up to someone completely disinterested in the issue to make a decision about what to print? I won't ever know the answer, but I do know that it will always bother me.
I would never claim to have the same kind of emotional investment as the people directly involved in this situation, nor any incidence of sexual abuse. It's a well-worn argument that most of us don't know how we'd react under trying circumstances. That chorus doesn't need another voice, and I don't mean to vindicate Paterno. What I do mean is that if you're making judgments under the notion that these problems are foreign, I beg to differ. My involvement in this situation was a tiny footnote, but I can tell you my reaction to questions about unverified allegations was paralysis. It's enough that I think twice about posting this years later, since I maintain personal relationships with people in the department. I know this reaction was more severe for others. Again, I don't mean to denounce anyone. Nor am I suggesting anything about the professor's guilt or innocence. These allegations were far, far less egregious than any transgression at Penn State, but they were serious enough that what I understood as harassment was later called "assault" in a settlement. That's at least of a remotely similar nature, and it could be argued that the consequences here may have been even more severe. Thankfully, this situation didn't involve children, but I suspect it may have been a preventable tragedy. This happened recently in a department at your university. It just gets less attention because it isn't a "football issue."
The PSU situation is complicated, and so much is dependent on who knew what. We can make certain assumptions from the Freeh Report, and they're reasonable, but in certain cases they are assumptions. At least, for now. I'm not sure how many people knew what about the situation I just described either. I'll never know the details, and I don't think I want to know. (It is worth noting that another faculty suicide occurred at nearly the same time, under similar circumstances). I don't know what, if any kind of counseling the professor might have been receiving. I'm sure some people do, since he was on sabbatical at the time. What is apparent to me is that the school seemed to distance itself from the situation, that people were paralyzed when confronted with unsubstantiated rumors, and that university members died when buried issues surfaced. Ultimately, that man made his own choice, and the last thing I'm trying to do is assign blame. That said, I am trying to demonstrate that these circumstances are relevant. If you want to describe the downplay of unverified sexual misconduct by a Penn State employee as a culture, our own culture doesn't exactly sparkle. I've followed the Sandusky situation as closely as sanity provides, but I'll leave others to the moral high ground.
Whatever your opinion on the sanctions, I ask you not to fall into the trap of believing that this problem was caused by a unique culture. This didn't happen because Paterno had too much power. It happened because only a handful of people knew about it, and they didn't have the courage to risk their careers when the institution they represented faced devastating consequences. That may be terrible, but it can happen anywhere. So, please stop calling certain people "Penn State." By my understanding, we know of four individuals responsible for this cover-up. One of them was at the top of the chain, but four people do not make a university.