What Penn State Tells Us About Us

What’s the main takeaway from the Penn State child abuse horror? For me it’s all about taking a hard look at our accepted priorities — at what’s at the top of our societal list in terms of what matters, what needs to be preserved, what we’re proud of and care about. And how come we’ve ended up with this list.

Maybe it’s time to take that hard look at what slot the powerful domain of football holds, what it really stands for and what’s gotten pushed much further down.

That inviolate Sat/Sun magnet that overrides all other activities and media programming touches one of our most basic instincts. It’s really all about a field of battle and which side we’re on, playing into one of our most ancient, genetic instincts: to go forth on a field of battle with our cave (team) mates to best our enemies and protect ourselves, to fight for our territory, to survive and win. What else could stir more group passion? “De-fense, de-fense” — listen to the power, the unison of the onlookers. We’re all driven by that old need for a group win (be safe and strong), not a group loss (danger, weakness). We get deeply involved in the vicarious fight for territory — that old warring spirit, the good guys vs. the bad guys, the conquest, the defeat.

Tapping into such atavistic needs and feelings, the football practitioners — teams, coaches, colleges, media, money-makers — have an easy time gathering the force to carve out a high place on our list of passions and priorities — and create an unbelievably lucrative kingdom.

But we’re born with a whole bunch of instincts, all left over from the early days when we, as a species, were just trying to get a toehold on the earth and figure out what we needed to do to survive. The two overriding forces were:

  • not getting killed (battling for safety) and
  • procreating the species (protecting the offspring).

Well, that battle for territorial safety has surely changed and football merely re-enacts that ancient drama. But protecting our children? That’s real — as strong and firm an instinct as it ever was.

The passion for protecting the offspring is rule one throughout the animal kingdom — not just lioness and cubs but us, too. And since our offspring take much longer to develop and leave the nest, our instinct should be greater and last much longer.

How did football grow to such a station in our lives that Penn State’s officials and practitioners would go against such basic human nature just to protect the franchise?

To save the reputation and grooved machinery of the their football kingdom, we see grown men who train and develop, actually mold young athletes, whose powerful involvement in their lives also teaches them morals, values, standards and ways of playing life’s games. We see these men find no deeper calling than just saving the status quo — and the power and money it represents.

What was that assistant coach thinking when he came in and saw a grown man (allegedly) assaulting and sexually violating a child? What did he feel? Wasn’t he horrified? Didn’t he identify with the victim, not the perp? Wasn’t his first instinct to run forward and stop it? Isn’t that genetic? But the perp was a Penn State football coach! What would it do to the kingdom if he confronted and fought him, let alone tell on him? What overrode that first human instinct and made him leave and just call Daddy?

“Fight a coach? I could lose my job! I’d threaten JoePa’s football kingdom, ruin my future — and Penn State’s golden franchise!”

Result? Execs, coaches, those who could have put a stop to it laid low. Did the minimum. Passed it on sotto voce to the next in line, whispering in corners, no action taken. And let Sandusky continue his destruction of young boys’ lives. No sense of responsibility to anything above the good of that franchise. No higher priority.

And when the media finally moved in, (telling us about Syracuse and The Citadel, too) we got our noses rubbed in what has been raised to such a high position on our priority list. Not only that the law wasn’t followed but that a deep human instinct didn’t register with any of those people to want to prevent Sandusky from hurting any more children.

 So — let’s take another look at our priority list — and at where kids fit on it. What other kids’ needs are we missing besides safety and protection from fiendish adults? What priorities are we giving to education? To their health? To helping them grow into useful adults who will direct the future of our society? What other roles do adults need to play in their lives?

And maybe we’ll even start thinking — “Football? Great. But it’s still only a game.”