16 July 2012

Accountability and Crisis PR at Penn State , Revisited

I'm stunned that so many people have missed this: the real story coming from Penn State is and continues to be one of the most profoundly inspiring examples of courage and fortitude we will see in America today. The events in Happy Valley over the past week only make this conclusion even more obvious.

A small group of young men - men who were once "disadvantaged" boys - stood up to say they were abused in ways many people won't even discuss.  They were tortured by a man who likely selected them for their perceived weakness - a man who no doubt instinctively understood the dynamics of power he was exerting over them. 

This man understood that these "weak" boys were not just facing an older, stronger man - they were facing a "culture of reverence." This predator instinctively knew he would be protected simply by his association with a popular football program.  And now we know he was right - as a member of that program, Penn State's leaders saw to it that he wouldn't face accountability for his actions. 

Some of these boys faced initial disbelief from their parents.  When one parent finally mustered the courage to complain in 1998, she faced this pedophile in her house, and got something tantamount to a confession while police listened in the other room.  She also had a report from a therapist suggesting the possibility of a pedophile in the football program.   Still, he wasn't prosecuted.  "Not enough evidence."  Leaders in this program worked quietly to protect the pedophile - not once expressing any interest for the welfare of the child. 

Still, some of the young boys continued to speak up, despite all of the incredible burdens working against them.  They faced the overwhelming trauma of the abuse itself, the disbelief, the stigma, the obtuse legal system, and the overwhelming pressure of disparaging the football program and its leaders - leaders who lied to the grand jury and everyone else.  There must have been incredible pressure to just shut up and "take it."  But someone in Happy Valley decided they wouldn't let this happen to another kid, no matter what it took.  That person is a hero.  So are the people who spoke up and challenged this pedophile in court.

The courage was contagious.  One victim speaking up became six, then eight, then ten, then twenty.  Now the list of those brave enough to step forward includes the predator's own son. 

Sadly, that courage must continue today.  That's because only one message from the Penn State community has come across clear as day since the scandal broke: "Don't even think about taking away our football."  Not a single game will be missed. 

Back in November, less than a second (yes, I timed it) after a statement was read announcing the termination of the University President and the football coach, two reporters shouted simultaneously, "who is coaching on Saturday?"  Students and alumni took to the streets.  They destroyed public property. They demonstrated in support of their coach, right outside his house. 

Just imagine the impact this scene must have had on the victims and their families.  These men shielded the pedophile that targeted them - and a community rushed to support the coach, not the victims.  These brave young men and their families watched their community literally riot the moment their coach saw an inkling of accountability for shielding the man that raped and abused those children.  (Of course, we now know that the coach made sure this "accountability" included a $3 million payout and a multitude of perks.)

The courage must continue because "don't even think about taking away our football" has inexplicably developed a very noisy corollary - "don't even think about taking down that statue of JoePa." To this day people there consider the statue a shrine and leave flowers there. (Don't worry, says the Board, it's staying. Of course, as the PR turns sour, the Board also issued an evasive statement saying "no vote has been taken.")

Again, imagine the impact this ridiculous distraction has on the victims and their families.  This guy knew he had a pedophile in his program, and, according to Penn State's own report, actively concealed information about it for 14 years and never considered the welfare of the victims.  And everyone seems more concerned with a statue of his likeness calling him a "humanitarian." 

The courage must continue because even though Penn State's own report heralds over 100 recommendations for improvement, dozens upon dozens of them are simply bureaucratic.  Shift "dotted line relationships" on org charts.  "Review" existing policies. Write job descriptions for new positions if you haven't already. (Yes, that's an actual recommendation.) Make a list of relevant programs you currently have. Comply with existing law.  No wonder the Board is quick to assert they're "already implementing many of the recommendations."  It's very hard to think real progress dismantling the "culture of reverence" can be made through dotted lines and job descriptions. 

The courage must continue because Penn State's culture isn't simply what you see at any other sports-crazy school.  This was the home of the "Grand Experiment."  The notion that their program was above reproach.  The idea that made them better than anyone else.  It's not like this at other schools.  

For example, I just look at some of the schools where my wife studied and worked.  There's just no way Penn State loves football more than Kentucky loves basketball.  People in Kentucky say national championships are their "birthright."  But say what you will, John Calipari really doesn't run the place.  Need an icon coach?  Mike Krzyzewski doesn't run Duke. (While my wife was never in Bloomington, Bobby Knight was the legend at Indiana and every bit as much an icon as Paterno - but he was escorted out.)  Need a football analogy?  The University of Georgia is as football-crazy as any school.  But Mark Richt doesn't presume to call the Board of Trustees and tell them what to do.  What's more, none of these coaches proclaim that their way is a "grand experiment."  

No, Penn State is a place where a former football coach with emeritus status can bring "underprivileged" kids on to campus to meet football players and attend football games, then rape boys in the showers that the football team uses, get seen by a football graduate assistant, who a day later reports it to the head football coach, who then waits to report it to the Athletic Director so as not to upset his weekend.  That former football coach with emeritus status can continue using the football facilities for several years with an office there, bring kids to meet football players and watch football games, take those kids to football games on the road and rape them.  And the most spirited, substantive defense that the head coach can make - in a letter published after his death - is that "this is not a football scandal." 

But it's all good, because the coach said "with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more" - and for many at Penn State, that alone constitutes a get-out-of-jail-free card.  The Paterno family has its own set of lawyers and PR consultants, and they're no doubt very good.  I just hope they consider the impact their campaign has on those who have really been hurt. 

The courage must continue because in a couple of months, they're either going to play football in Happy Valley or they won't.  If they play football, these brave young men and their families will get to watch thousands parade around like they're on some kind of victory lap, chanting "WE ARE!" like they beat back outsiders who just don't understand the Penn State way.   Just like they did at the Nebraska game last year, only with more bravado this time.  If they don't play football, expect the local media to run stories about the businesses that will suffer for the 6 missed home games, the kids who don't get to play sports, and how everyone feels like they've been punished for someone else's crimes.  These young men and their families will have to fight the notion that they're somehow responsible for this.

I hope we will recognize the courage exemplified by these brave young men and their families.  The physical abuse is over, but we all know the mental and emotional impact endures.  We all know these young men will endure further indignities as many in the Penn State community continue to resist the "transformation" of its culture.  The courage must continue.  I certainly hope it does. 

1 comment:

Julie Marsh said...

Athletics are important, but I'm so tired of athletics being held up as the most publicly important aspect of our universities. Likewise, the lionization (no pun intended) of athletic leadership vs. the disdain for academia is totally backasswards.

It's stunning to see that people care more about the reputation of an athletic program and its leaders than the lives of children.