The dark low-lying cloud hanging over Penn State University today is so thick even the most high-tech military fighter jet couldn’t dent it. That’s what happens when so many smoking guns go off all at once.
It’s smothering. It’s choking, Gasping isn’t an option but a decree.
And the stench, well, it’s tear-inducing.
It’s the smell of mendacity Tennessee Williams wrote about. It’s the odor of shame, the stink of rot burning its way from deep within to finally reach the outside world.
The irony? Even amid the cloying smoke the air is finally, ultimately clear for any to see what transpired at the place formerly known as Happy Valley.
And what all can now witness is a hundred-fold tragedy perpetrated by intelligent people who thought they knew what they were doing. On some level, they convinced themselves that it was the right thing in some misguided belief that protecting the university trumped guarding the helpless. The decision-makers are probably otherwise good people, too, certainly not inherently evil ones. High-level and educated university administrators were involved. So was an iconic sports figure who was paid two times more than the university president and for all practical purposes ran the school.
More’s the pity and the horror.
Yes, scorn, ridicule, bile and rage are being directed toward those who occupied the highest echelons at the institution for higher learning in State College, Pa., a lonely place tucked into the mountains where things appear safe — deceptively so as it turned out. It’s a site known for its respected university, a highly successful football team, a legendary and once beloved coach and now most assuredly for hiding a known pedophile who continued to prey upon children while the university hid behind a fear of bad public relations.
The scathing report issued Thursday by former FBI director Louis Freeh into the matter of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the accusations that he was a predator of young males and when Penn State administrators and athletics officials knew then did nothing about it, left little room for doubt or question. Leaders at the university, including football coach Joe Paterno, are culpable in a disgusting cover-up that jeopardized the well-being of nearly any child within reach of Sandusky, who was allowed to quietly retire but still use campus facilities for years after the first allegations that he’s a child molester became known.
They are guilty of protecting Penn State at the expense of the public good — and a whole lot more. The report stated as much, saying, “There is an overemphasis on ‘the Penn State Way’ as an approach to decision-making, a resistance to outside perspectives and an excess focus on athletics.”
It was an institutional failure of such magnitude even the janitors were involved.
It would be nice to add a coda that this is perhaps an isolated instance of administrative malfeasance committed in the name of positive P.R., not to mention college athletics. Oh, this might be the most egregious example, perhaps. But Penn State certainly doesn’t stand alone.
Far from it.
Absolutely no one wants bad publicity. Who does? But nearly all — from local governments to public school systems to universities to corporations to churches — go out of their way to avoid it. A few take extreme measures to do so. Some accomplish it by mere silence.
Look no further than here in Alamance County. In April it was discovered that alleged incidents of sexual battery occurred at Woodlawn Middle School but were not reported to authorities as mandated by state law.
Schools are most frequently where fear of negative stories fuel secrets. During my time at the Jacksonville Daily News I was asked to serve on the fledgling Crimestoppers board of directors. Shortly after we established the organization, there was a move to invite school system representatives to join. Quickly talk turned to specific instances of drug-related problems in Onslow County schools. When I began asking questions as a reporter, I was told the conversation was considered “off the record.” I left the board shortly after. I told them I didn’t have the time, but I really felt uncomfortable keeping secrets.
Yes, almost every day, somewhere, an employee in the public sector is let go for unstated and unknown reasons. Private corporations hide the losses of thousands — even millions of dollars from authorities to keep their “good” name intact. Fear of lawsuits in an overly litigious society is part of the problem. But wanting to stamp out bad news is its equal.
There are dozens of valuable lessons to be gained from the mess at Penn State. Learning to accept the consequences of occasional bad publicity is certainly one of them.
Because no one looks good when it all blows up.