The Penn State Scandal: The Failing of an Institution and Our Culture of Outrage
The Jerry Sandusky-Penn State child molestation case is the biggest sports-related story to cross into the American mainstream since the OJ murder trial. Like the OJ case, it has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy: the American icon fallen from grace, our perception of our heroes shaken to its core, a deep and fundamental betrayal of public trust, and even more sickeningly, public belief. The days of Penn State as a premier academic and athletic institution are likely over, and that seems unfathomable. But as monolithic as the school is, it is a human institution created and staffed by human beings. That it should also have human flaws and shortcomings should not be a surprise. It is a profound disappointment, but it is not a surprise. Which is why I’m so dismayed by the ever-growing, media-populated lynch mob that has surrounded the story with pitchforks and torches.
Our society enjoys being outraged. 21st century American culture has embraced the concept of schadenfreude to a frightening extent; we don’t necessarily want to win, but we do want our opponents to lose. We live to pile it on. If someone is down, all the better. (There’s also an envious side to schadenfreude that I see prevalent in my generation. Ex.: Let’s say there’s a wealthy man living in a big house on the hill. Every day, he rolls through the poorer side of town in his gleaming Mercedes-Benz. Instead of saying, “I want that. If I work hard, I can get it,” our culture all too often says, “Fuck that guy. Who does he think he is?”) It’s an unhealthy attitude, but Americans love to strut about on a moral high ground. (See: Clinton-Lewinsky.) In the wake of scandal, it’ a veritable race to see who can summon the most indignation and outrage.
I thought of all this as I observed the media’s and the public’s reaction to the ever-growing Penn State scandal. Pundits tripped over themselves in a rush to be outraged over the abuse case and subsequent institutional cover-up. Mike Golic of ESPN’s Mike & Mike in The Morning visibly trembled with rage when asked what his reaction was to the case, saying that he couldn’t even say on the air what he would do to the alleged perpetrator of the crimes. I was almost as disturbed by this reaction to the case as I was to the case itself. There have only been allegations, and the case hasn’t been heard in a court of law. Do I think Sandusky did it? He’s as guilty as OJ. But here is a member of the media implying that he wishes to kill Sandusky, facts unseen. How is that okay?
I understand that what (allegedly) happened at Penn State is a terrible thing, the cover-up of the acts even worse. But why the rush to discredit the school? Why the rush to rub salt in the wound, to condemn, to scale Mount Pious and out-moral high horse other media members? It drives me insane that every media pundit has to have a “take” on the case, as if there is another stance to have. It’s like when activists say they’re “anti-abortion.” Absolutely NO ONE, even the most fervent pro-lifer, is pro-abortion. To say you’re anti-abortion is to willfully ignore what the argument is actually about. The same is going on here. To say you’re outraged by the Penn State scandal is to say nothing at all, because what else would you feel?
\What allegedly happened at Penn State is a travesty and a crime, but it has happened before and it will happen again. The kind of blind, group-think public pummeling of Penn State that has gone on can’t undo it. It’s a blessing that the crimes were stopped when they did, that they were not unable to continue. But that is lost in members of the media throwing their hands to the heavens and demanding to know how this could be allowed to happen. But how it happens is disgustingly easy. Human institutions like Penn State also have human failings. But we believe that institutions shouldn’t have failings, that they should somehow be on a higher plane. But anything created by man can be undone by man. To be angry about that is to be angry at the sky for being so blue. All of the outrage and moral preening in the world won’t change our flaws. Expending anger about the failures of man is just the easiest way to deal with not knowing how to solve them.