I’ve been pondering the scandal at Penn State in light of my experiences not only as a police officer who investigated child abuse, but as an educator. I was unsure precisely how to approach it. Writers need a ‘hook,” a point of view or approach slightly off the beaten path, something that will allow them a fresh view at a topic about which barrels of ink—virtual and real–have been expended. I found inspiration from my favorite Bookworm:
In the wake of the horrific child abuse scandal roiling Penn State, many have been trying to understand how Sandusky’s predatory behavior could have continued unchecked for so long. The focal point of this “how could this happen” question is the fact that Mike McQueary actually witnessed an assault. Rather than rearranging Sandusky’s face, McQueary slipped out quietly, called his Daddy, and than made a chain-of-command report. As far as he was concerned, he’d then done what he needed to do. Paterno did exactly the same: chain-of-command report. And so on, up the ladder, with each person punting the problem higher, and each higher level official diluting the story so that it transformed from child rape into inappropriate behavior — and we all know that inappropriate behavior needs to be dealt with tactfully and in a way that doesn’t embarrass the institution.
So, again, we have to ask why?
Because — and this is not an idle boast — I have some of the smartest readers in the blogosphere, I can take a good stab at an answer. In an open thread about Penn State, my readers chewed over the fact that in Pennsylvania, the law allows employees who witness a crime to go up the chain of command, whereas in Texas (for example) the law requires that every person has the responsibility to report to the authorities cases of suspected child abuse. In other word, the culture is different in the two states, with one allowing people to pass the buck, and the other mandating that people take independent action.
Bookworm goes on to well examine our cultural failings–our individual responsibility malaise in Jimmy Carterese–and she is absolutely right. But there are other reasons that are a genuine indictment of our education system and that arguably, are as much–perhaps more–at fault. Like her, I am asking why?
In education, there are essentially four worlds. These worlds are interrelated, but their denizens are often more alien than the denizens of different solar systems probably are. They are: teachers (they that do the actual, daily work of teaching) principals (they that supervise teachers and more and more, principally file state and federal paperwork), administrators (who invent grand schemes to brilliantly improve education—and their career prospects), and coaches. By the amount of money lavished on them, the deference paid them, and their exalted, demi-god-like status, a visitor from another world would surely conclude that the most important people in the educational system, perhaps on the planet, are coaches.
By way of disclaimer, not all coaches are like those I am about to describe. Some are dedicated teachers whose commitment to the classroom is as strong, even stronger, than their dedication to sports. But reality teaches that most people that pursue an undergraduate degree in coaching do not do so because of their burning desire to teach English or History. They want to be coaches. That’s what is important to them, and they teach—in too many cases as little and as haphazardly as possible—because they have no choice. I’m sad to say that over the years, I have come to expect nothing at all from coaches when it comes to competence in or dedication to teaching. I have been pleasantly surprised upon occasion, but no one should be surprised to discover that coaches behave like coaches. I’ve known far too many kids who lost an entire year of learning because chance put them in the classroom of a coach.
I should also note, as I have before in this column, I am not against sports. I’ve been an athlete all of my life, participating in soccer and track in school, running multiple marathons, participating in various martial arts, and indulging—due to multiple knee injuries—in my current favorite sport: bicycling. I believe that sports are vital and provide significant benefits, benefits that can and should last a lifetime, but our school sports systems are the antithesis of that philosophy. For the most part, secondary and college sports benefit only a small cadre of elite coaches and athletes, leaving everyone else only to be “inspired” by their example.
Coaches and teachers are often at odds. Coaches are commonly not required to abide by the same rules in dress, attendance or any other aspect of the job. Coach Smith hasn’t posted a lesson plan this semester? No problem; he’s a busy man, and besides, the football team is winning. Coach Jones was late for his classes for the 40th time this year? No problem; he has athletics before those classes, and you know, sometimes things just run a little long. Coach Bennett has missed 30 days this semester for seminars, games, and other coach stuff? No problem; athletics are important. Coach Johnson hasn’t abided by the teacher dress code—ever? No problem; coaches have to be ready to coach, you know. Coach McCain hasn’t entered a single grade in his computer gradebook or handed back a graded assignment in two months? No problem; he’s building a winning program.
Oh, but we, the Anytown USA School District are all about academics! Perhaps, but what are we to believe when we see you spending more on football stadiums and athletic facilities than the cost of entire schools? What are we to believe when we gaze at annual calendar photographs of your football team and find nearly a one-to-one ratio of coaches to players? What are we to believe when football coaches—particularly head coaches–are paid far more than teachers and when they are spoken of in reverent tones, deferred to and treated as superior beings? What are we to believe when players are given awards, banquets, and in some places, cash and other goods? And what are we to believe when failing athletes somehow manage to pass regardless to maintain their eligibility (and yes, despite laws and rules, this does indeed routinely happen)? Throw in the expectations of adults, some of whom seem to live for little more than high school football (or other sports in other parts of the nation), and one might be forgiven for thinking your claim to care more about academics than sports to be just a bit disingenuous.
Translate these issues to college, and the problems involved—and the money spent—become truly monumental. Joe Paterno reportedly made a million dollars a year, and he is far from the only college coach inhabiting that monetary neighborhood. The response of students and adults alike, not only at Penn State but across the nation, is indicative of a society gone mad. Students riot because “our coach” has been fired and because accused child molester/coach Jerry Sandusky was exposed and arrested. Coach Mike McQueary, who had the temerity to actually report Sandusky’s rape of a ten year old boy in 2002, has gone into hiding following credible death threats. His Penn State coaching career is over; he’ll likely never coach again anywhere. The media blathers about the need of the university and the community to “heal,” and “recover” from the terrible tragedy. Sportscasters laud the majesty of football players who gather at the center of a football field before a game as though this in some way reflects selflessness and nobility, even concern for the actual victims who are mentioned more or less as an afterthought if at all.
Even high school coaches find themselves feted with honors and near-worship in the local media and among the population, particularly if they coach winning teams. Such men are often held up as role models and leaders, and because of their popularity, find themselves essentially immune to criticism, discipline, supervision, firing and even, in some ways, the law.
Coaches often stand apart from teachers, associating only with other coaches. And when any coach is threatened, all circle the wagons. Theirs is a culture rooted in adolescent values where aggression substitutes for mature discourse and physical rough housing between coaches and students is common. Hazing, often resulting in serious injuries, is equally common and if coaches don’t promote it, they often wink at or ignore it in the name of building team camaraderie. With the contemporary emphasis on preventing bullying, this has diminished to some degree, but is far from uncommon. To be sure, hard physical exertion and the ability to endure pain is necessary for athletes, but far too many coaches seem unable to understand the difference between necessary training and abuse.
Transfer and magnify all of these values and experiences to the big leagues of college athletics where hundreds of millions are at stake, and coaches can quickly become god-like, invulnerable figures, men none dare challenge. Such were Jerry Sandusky, and particularly Joe Paterno. Columnist Michael Godwin observed:
He [Paterno] was the pope of a secular religion that forged friendships and family bonds. Under his benevolent dictatorship, ‘old school’ became a term of rectitude and integrity.
Sandusky was apparently only a little lower in the pantheon of secular saints than Paterno.
Lest anyone miss the point, I don’t argue that coaches do nothing of value. I argue for proper priorities in education, and for the proper allocation of resources to fulfill the ostensible role of schools: to educate students rather than to support training teams for the next level of athletic competition or providing athletic entertainment for the community. Coaches, after all, are men that encourage others to play children’s games. While many coaches may be fine people with admirable character, who should be more appreciated, a coach or a dedicated, inspiring teacher, who will affect far more students–and far more diverse students–than any coach? Whose efforts should receive a greater share of the public budget? Who should be more admired and respected?
Many have been very hard on Mike McQueary, but he is surely the least culpable in this little football program of horrors. As a graduate student and aspiring college coach, he stumbled onto an iconic figure, a man given great–and apparently undeserved—respect, a man wielding great influence and power engaged in an act of rape that would have rendered virtually anyone stunned and speechless. The grand jury presentment provides a glimpse into the sheer horror of that moment. As a graduate student, McQueary was only one step up the ladder from any undergraduate student. He was powerless, with little status, yet like most coaches, he desperately wanted to ingratiate himself with older, more experienced coaches who could provide him with the social contacts he needed to advance his coaching career.
Many pundits have expressed indignation that McQueary did not immediately—and please forgive the graphic nature of what I’m about to say; it’s necessary to make the point—physically separate the naked Sandusky and the equally naked 10 year old male victim he was allegedly sodomizing and take that boy immediately to the police. Imagine yourself in that situation. Almost anyone would find them self so shocked as to be incapable of rational thought. And no doubt, when the shock diminished sufficiently, McQueary was struck with the realization of who he—a nobody graduate student—would be accusing of one of the most vile crimes imaginable. Yet he did the right thing, he did what Pennsylvania law required and notified Joe Paterno. McQueary was right to fear consequences for doing the right thing, if not the absolutely right thing some imagine they would have immediately done. In the end, McQueary merely delayed the destruction of his career for nine years.
Because of his position, power and status, Paterno was able to pass the buck up his chain of command, which almost certainly was so concerned with preserving the pristine reputations of the University, its sports programs and those associated with it that rape became only a mildly inappropriate matter handled by prohibiting Sandusky from bringing young boys on campus. Those involved in sports at Penn State are apparently also incapable of recognizing irony. McQueary survived in coaching only because getting rid of him would have raised too many questions, and Sandusky was able to continue his alleged molestation of children for nine more years.
Bookworm concluded her essay thus:
Penn State is a tocsin, warning us what happens when our cultural paradigm encourages us to pass the buck. The nation, as a whole, hasn’t yet reached the moral abyss that is the Penn State athletic department, but Barack Obama has stated clearly that his goal is to create precisely the bureaucratic, dependency culture that makes Penn State’s (and Nazi Germany) possible. This is not to say that Barack Obama and his team have as their goal mass child rape, genocide, crime waves, etc. It is to say, though, that once one creates a government system that turns people into mindless, amoral automatons, the possibilities are endless for mass evil, unconstrained by individual morals.
Why? Because we have raised athletics to heights it does not deserve. Because we have encouraged children to focus on athletics at the expense of education. Because we have accorded men whose primary competence lies in winning children’s games to assume power, respect and compensation far outside the boundaries of common sense and reality. Because when any group of people are not only allowed but encouraged to believe that the rules don’t apply to them, ever greater corruption always results. Because when anyone is allowed to believe that their reputation and the reputation of a sports team is more important than the lives and safety of innocent children, innocent children will be abused.
The most damning indictment may be that we have forgotten why schools exist. Perhaps we don’t care anymore. Perhaps we have descended into the bread and circuses torpor of the final days of Rome. And Perhaps the Penn State debacle is final, incontrovertible evidence of our lack of caring. Perhaps it’s too late to change. As long as we evince the slightest caring for the “healing” of Penn State and its football program, the outlook for the healing of education isn’t good.