The Media Zone

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The Penn State Scandal Continues, but Will the Punishment Fit the Crime?

They hoped Sandusky would ride off into a pedophilic sunset.

penn state football Beaver Stadium
Penn State Headlines: Sandusky, Pedophilia. Cover-Up. And there's the oxygen-hogging Paterno thing... His stature is mortally wounded. He should have left the stage sooner. As they say, "Timing is everything." Retirement hopes energized by hubris have transmuted into nightly replays of career termination nightmares. Marble feet have turned to clay. Paterno's health and immune system will most certainly suffer from the psychological, physical and medical stresses he is weathering.

At the same time, the apparent cover-up is likely hurting Penn State's reputation more than the long-time Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky pedophilic episode itself. This looks like Penn State's Watergate moment.

Jerry Sandusky arrest
Journalistic or writerly distance provides perspective. Cold assessment: An ugly script plays out. An institution shakes. The still-unfolding scandal, with its perp, victims, and culpables, will run its legal and moral-ethical course. The mishandled, unchecked, decade-plus criminal rapes of young boys by Mr. "horsing around," Jerry Sandusky, is, in its way, an American tragedy; especially if it's all seen as fall-out. Fall-out from what's often judged as a distorted, distended, debased tradition of King Sports and the idolatry of American college athletics.

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Is "piling on" this thing we deride as the college sports behemoth warranted, proportionate? Or, is it now more accurately a national hysteria, with a mind of its own? Perhaps it is a media-driven, opportunistic reaction to a heinous, attention-getting scandal? Who knows. But one thing it isn't is a reaction to a player, a team, or a coach for an NCAA rule violation.

Clearly, the nation-wide reaction wave is to a crime of still unknown dimensions  and to a likely cover-up of one coach's sick obsession. It is also, (at this informational juncture), a reaction to the greed and fear of some university gatekeepers who did know better but acted worse, for which they are now reaping the whirlwind of national opprobrium.

Yet, there's all this talk about how to punish Penn State: no bowl games, a season suspension from competition. Others cry "Downsize the program, eliminate scholarships," etc., etc., etc. Many voices, many motives, many agendas, not all pure plays.

There is the Greek chorus of people looking for some sort of personified institutional "villain" -- a football program,  an entire university, or an entire inter-collegiate enterprise, whose flaying will, if at all, only illusorily explain why bad things happen to innocents and why good people can actively or passively do bad things.

Seriously, why is the NCAA involved in this at all except for image management and damage control? Why should Penn State football or the student-athletes be penalized? The incidents at issue concern felonious crimes not recruitment or athlete payment infractions.

Penn State's likely but still only alleged cover-up of the Sandusky's crimes may indicate a decade of institutional myopia (or worse) on the part of some or all the staff and administrators involved.

"Why did they do it?" we ask. Well, I guess "for the Gipper," aka, the reputation of the university and the football program, with its golden goose beneficence for the university at all levels including local and regional police agencies and justice systems: State College truly is a company town.

"But what about Coach Sandusky, the alleged crime, and it's implications for future crime victims? What was Penn State thinking?" we puzzle rhetorically.

Well, Penn State didn't "think." Some in its administration and sports program—most of them now fired—did the thinking. It does call to mind the symptoms described by psychologist Irving L. Janis in his seminal book, Victims of Groupthink: Under the gun, participants circle the wagons. They brain storm amongst themselves, soundproofed from opposing or alternative input. They distort reality, self-censor, rationalize, stay with the talking-thinking-acting points. They overrate damage control and group esprit. They overestimate the sanity and underestimate the repulsive power of obsessive drives of a "friendly, socially

Jerry Sandusky book jacket

concerned, honored coach" who helps rescue 'boys at risk,' but who just happens to be a canny pedophile.

Did these administrators, these keepers of the football flame, magically think Jerry Sandusky would stop his predation, that he would just disappear, just ride out of Happy Valley into a pedophilic sunset?

"Don't they know that this form of behavioral "cancer" never does? It comes back? It resurfaces? And when it does...?"

Obviously not. Not in their panic throes. That's definitely not what they were thinking!

These participants are on the docket.  So, what necessitates real and symbolic shows of force in the form of Draconian and ad hoc punishment of the Penn State sports corpus? That would be a panic response that is manifestly unfair and unwise.

But voices cry out for such "corrective" symbolism, voices which will likely not be stilled. The program will likely be punished. If only for the sake of appearances, there will be blood in State College, PA.

But let's reality test. Sport enthusiasm (and, hello, its excess potential) is in the human DNA, (cultures just direct it into different expressions) and will serve its psychological and sociological master drives, regardless of what hoops some "corrective" remedies require of the institutions.  How will they redress the so-called imbalance between college sports and college academics?

Many complain that Penn State football is a case of the tail of sports wagging the dog of education.
For students, though, is there really an imbalance between emphasis on college sports and on college education?

When it comes to sports and academics, each university sector serves a different population or the same population in different ways. Really, students don't drop out of taking courses so they can play or attend sports events (student athletes excepted). And, I hasten to add, excessive or loopy athletic fandom of students over the firing of fallen icons like Joe Paterno is not on the same order of moronic egregiousness as misguided alumni and local business boosterism.

May I suggest you rent some of the five seasons of the magnificent TV series, Friday Night Lights, for a journey into the belly of the beast of high school and college football, replete with misguided or corrupt values and actions by administrators and athletic staffs. In the world of Penn State, for these athletic supporters, sports is money, a career, or an exercise of power and influence and holding on to halcyon days (for some, of course,it actually is for the love of the game).

For the Penn State students, on the other hand, sports and its attendant rants, raves and rituals are a boisterous, roller coaster ride of pride and passion and identity development, as well a diversion from education and career preparation stresses and strains. But there are normative parameters of sports appreciation. Do most students pick colleges because of athletics? I've seen no data to support that. They might know of a school because of its sports teams, but that's not the basis of their choice to either go or stay there.

When devising the "punishment cure"  to be meted out to the entire collective of Penn State people, places, and things, these two separate interest groups should be kept conceptually separate. And wisdom, unsullied by revenge or politics, should ride shotgun.

The punishment must fit the crimes of deed, heart and priorities. The collateral damage and the purpose or goal of the punishment must be fully and realistically assessed, in terms of desired ends and the chosen means to achieve those ends. Commentators and judges must be careful not to throw out the Penn State baby with the Sandusky cover-up bathwater and unfairly diminish the stature and value of a major EDUCATIONAL institution.

"Penn State" did not rape the children. One man did. "Penn State" did not enact the cover-up. Some men did.

In a just world, the punishment is not scattershot. It fits the crime and the criminals. I learned that in a philosophy course as a student at Penn State.

 

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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