Fallen Idols

The Penn State debacle – crime, punishment and overreaction – displays much of what is wrong with American life today. To be sure, the innocent victims have been vindicated and the guilty punished. Sandusky, the longstanding pervert, will never see the light of freedom again, although true justice would demand his execution. Paterno, the venerable legendary coach, is dead, and other administrators have resigned. Did Paterno place the primacy of football above every other concern – moral and personal? Certainly. Was he also of a generation that was uncomfortable with such deviance and untrained in the modern protocols? Again, certainly.

     Indeed, the modern protocol is to lash out at peripheral people and institutions, and recklessly attack all those in the penumbra of the truly guilty. That is why the NCAA punishment strikes me as overwrought and overkill. It suggests the conclusion that engendering new innocent victims is less important than punishing the old guilty ones. (Full disclosure: I have zero interest in college football. Growing up, it was exclusively a Shabbat sport, so I have never followed the teams, the players, the bowls, etc.)

    What did the NCAA decree?

    Penn State must pay a fine of $60,000,000, the equivalent (apparently) of one year’s revenue from their football program. That is a lot of money – both for the program to generate, as well as for the university to spend. Thus, it is quite a loss of revenue, which ostensibly was utilized not only for football, but for the presumed purposes of a university – the education of its underclassmen. So, how exactly will Penn State compensate for this loss of revenue? Its faculty suffers, its research institutions and infrastructure suffer, and its current students, guiltless in this spectacle, suffer the most, because they will likely be hit with increased tuition, reduced services, an inferior education, or all three. Where’s the justice in that – punishing the innocent to get back at the guilty?

     Penn State is on NCAA probation, forfeits dozens of scholarships, and is barred from bowl games for four years. The NCAA president offered this pearl of wisdom: “Football will never be put ahead of educating, protecting and nurturing young people.” Who is he kidding?  A program that generates annual revenue of $60M will take precedence over anything else on campus, because nothing else on that campus produces such revenue. Arguably, the NCAA presides over an amateur sports behemoth that is tangentially attached to college campuses. The essence is the football (or basketball, hockey, etc.) while the education is clearly secondary. College sports are teams that are associated with schools, not schools that also have teams. That is why the coach is paid an astronomically-greater salary than any faculty member, and that is why student-athletes are awarded scholarships, even when they are more athletic than scholarly.

    How else to explain another sanction: Any entering or returning player is free to transfer without restriction (waiving the normal requirement that a transfer student has to sit out one year before playing at his new school). That presupposes that “students” are in college primarily to play football, and will transfer schools not to engage in a course of study unavailable at the first college, or to learn from more distinguished faculty at another, but simply to play ball. Is that what college is? For many people, yes. Hence, the contention that “Football will never be put ahead of educating, protecting and nurturing young people” is risible. It already is, and will be as long as there is an NCAA.

     Joe Paterno’s wins from 1998-2011 are vacated (and the university on its own initiative took down the Paterno statue that graced its campus). The mere fact that a statue was erected to honor a football coach – rather than a clergyman, a professor, a scientist, a moral beacon, etc. – already shows the priorities of the university, but is it fair to judge a person’s life based on one act, and an act of omission at that?

The fallen idol is weird but understandable, but the removal of the wins from the record book is downright stupid, a pathetic joke and a classic overreaction. It is not like the use of an ineligible player that voids that player’s contributions to the game and thereby the game itself. Here, did Paterno not coach from 1998-2011? Did the players not play? Were the players injured in those games suddenly healed? Were the games not won? Did what happen never happen? Is Bill Clinton still president? Did the Arabs not terrorize the US on September 11, 2001? How can one abide this blatant falsification of history, and not burst out laughing?

Ty Cobb is reputed to have been a racist, one of today’s cardinal sins. Should he have 1000 hits removed from his batting records as penance? Indeed, there was once talk of removing Cobb from the Baseball Hall of Fame for his sins, talk that emanated from ridiculous circles similar to the one that just erased Paterno’s wins from the record book. Forget steroids; perhaps we should review the moral record of all athletes and adjust the box scores accordingly. The Mets seem like a nice group of guys – let’s give them some wins. They could surely use them now.

There is one other troubling factor about this repulsive matter that is swept under the rug in the haste to blame the obvious guilty parties. There is one group that is overlooked, that attracts only sympathy and understanding, but who were instrumental in prolonging the problem: the victims.

In today’s culture, it is in poor taste ever to blame the victims, but often the victims are responsible –not for their own victimization but for their failure to prevent the victimization of others. I don’t want to know what Paterno did or didn’t do, or any college official. Crimes were committed against children! Did any of those children ever go to the police? Did any of their parents go to the police? Not soon enough.

This is a recurring problem today that anguishes me constantly. Over a decade ago, in response to a similar situation in our community, I announced publicly that if children are abused, or report abuse to their parents, don’t come to me. Go right to the police. Don’t think, don’t make calculations, don’t ask questions. If the testimony is credible, then prosecute. Let the police and the District Attorney sort out the details. For medical problems, see the doctor. For criminal problems, see the police.

But it almost never happens until it is too late, until the children become adults and wake up to the abuse. The default reaction of parents is to get angry – and then do nothing, so as not to affect the shidduch, or not make their child more uncomfortable, or to avoid a public spectacle. And predators thereby enjoy temporary immunity, and usually long careers. This I have learned through personal and painful experience in the rabbinate.

For all the talk of rabbis who tell congregants to cover up, my experience has been that the rabbis in those cases, deplorable as it is, are simply confirming what the person wants to hear anyway. Too many people do not want to put themselves out, too many victims want to disappear back into their lives and not think about their trauma. That is understandable, but no one chooses to be a victim; victimhood is thrust upon them unwillingly. It is a test of their character, too. So we need a code of ethics for the victim that reads in part: Go to the police. Don’t cover up. Prosecute. You owe it to yourself but you owe it even more to the potential, future victims.

Pikuach nefesh (the saving of lives) takes precedence over all but three cardinal sins. Just as we breach the laws of Shabbat for Pikuach nefesh, so too we breach even the laws of informing on another Jew for pikuach nefesh. And it is pikuach nefesh – the predator destroys young lives and healthy souls, as assuredly as if he took a gun to their heads. One who fails to prosecute a predator either because he would rather not make waves or because he is afraid of the consequences is literally standing idly while his brother’s blood is being shed.  A normal society does not require a panel of rabbis to adjudicate the seriousness of the allegations, any more than a person in cardiac arrest needs to consult a panel of rabbis before seeking medical attention. But this is unfortunately not the norm in Jewish life, and it is why predators are sometimes bounced from school to school, and why timely prosecutions are rare.

I have too often encountered an unwillingness to prosecute, and conversely a desire to “work it out” between the parties, and a desire not to harm the pervert’s family, and a desire not to make waves. And the abuser goes merrily on with his life, going to shul and attending parties, appearing in public places where children proliferate – and the community is none the wiser. I have personally been told by the police that if a predator is not prosecuted, and I reveal his name to the public, then I can be arrested and charged with harassment. No prosecution, no evidence, no crime – it is as if it never happened. And when the victim does come forward 10-20 years later, he is invariably coddled, lionized and compensated for what he endured – but never castigated for what he indirectly inflicted on others.

That has to change. It is a shame that the public focus remains on what Paterno did or didn’t do –and his wins and idols – but not on what the victims could have, and should have, done.  Too many people are obsessed with the viability of Penn State’s football program, surely not an indispensable part of a college education. Let Sandusky rot in prison since he can’t be executed – but the overriding lesson for me is the moral obligation of victims to come forward, make accusations, prosecute the guilty – and defend their peers, the innocents of the future whose lives are literally in their hands.

2 responses to “Fallen Idols

  1. Much food for thought here, although I’m not sure that I agree with everything. I think the NCAA’s actions are silly for the reasons you described, but at the same time, it’s in a classic “no-win” situation: it must do something to maintain the image of the “honorable sportsman,” and it has fairly limited power to do anything that would actually be helpful in this horrible situation. (as an aside: outside of big money sports like collegiate basketball and football, NCAA student-athletes and coaches are much more likely to be dedicated to education as much as their athletics)

    Your call for a code of ethics for survivors means well, but I think overlooks some of the aspects of these type of crimes. Survivors of sexual assaults of these kinds have generally had their faith in authority and society completely shattered. Asking them to trust other authorities and speak up for society at large is a tremendous task, especially if they encounter any resistance, as they often do.

  2. Once again, the truth is spoken by Rabbi Pruzansky.