Not long after the NCAA came down on Penn State three years ago, after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, a small group of rabid Penn State supporters began circulating emails to each other. A few journalists were also among those receiving the emails, myself included.
The group regularly denounced the report issued by Louis Freeh, which accused top Penn State officials — including beloved football coach Joe Paterno — of turning a blind eye to protect the football program. They vilified Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, who had fined Penn State $60 million, taken away scholarships, erased more than a decade’s worth of victories and banned the team from the postseason for four years, without so much as a hearing. They condemned anyone who dared to suggest that Paterno was less than saintly. And, of course, they fumed at the news media for piling on.
Amid the hyperbole and self-pity, there was some truth to what they wrote, especially about the NCAA. Clearly, the association overreached, something it has seemed to acknowledge implicitly by lifting some of the sanctions. Internal NCAA emails that were recently made public show that the staff knew it had no jurisdiction, and that it was “bluffing” in trying to get Penn State to accept its penalties. And many in the news media feel chastened for having egged on this rush to judgment (including me).
But the emails also represent something else. Because the NCAA placed the blame for what happened on Penn State’s “football culture” — and because its punishments affected people who had nothing to do with Sandusky’s crimes — it allowed the Penn State community to wallow in its own sense of victimization. “It made a lot of people who could have been focusing on the victims feel like victims themselves, because of the NCAA,” Matt Sandusky told me.
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Yes, Matt Sandusky. Matt, who is one of Jerry and Dottie Sandusky’s adopted children, is one of the central characters in a fine new documentary about the Penn State case, called “Happy Valley.” Matt had been abused for many years by Sandusky, and, though he doesn’t mention it in the film, he attempted suicide as a teenager. (Jerry Sandusky stopped abusing him after that, he noted.) Although Matt, at first, lied to prosecutors — claiming that he had never been abused — he decided to speak up after he heard one of the victims testify during the trial. After it was leaked that he was willing to testify, his adopted family turned its back on him.
There are plenty of examples in the film, which was directed by Amir Bar-Lev, of an over-the-top football culture. Angry fans gather at Paterno’s house after he is fired, chanting his name in support. Hordes of students swarm the streets of State College in what can only be called a riot. A man who holds a sign accusing Paterno of enabling sexual abuse is bullied.
But is Penn State’s football culture really any worse than at 50 other big-time athletic schools? At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, many athletes stayed eligible by taking no-show classes in the department of African, African-American and diaspora studies. This went on for well over a decade. At Florida State University, police have consistently looked the other way when athletes got into trouble. The football team’s quarterback, Jameis Winston, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, but he’s still playing. Penn State had a predator in its midst, much as the Roman Catholic Church and many other organizations have had.
“I don’t think football had much to do with it,” said Jolie Logan, speaking about the Sandusky case. She is the chief executive of Darkness to Light, which is dedicated to educating the public about child sexual abuse. Sandusky, she told me, used the classic techniques of predators, putting himself in a position of being a trusted friend of children, and taking advantage of that trust to abuse them.
But she is also not surprised that football is what people have talked about in the aftermath, rather than the sexual abuse. “It is easier for us to focus on everything else except the actual abuse,” she said.
As for Paterno, his biographer, Joe Posnanski, told me that much of the evidence of his culpability in the Freeh report on Penn State and the Sandusky case is thin — allusions to him in emails written by others. But he also said, in the film, that before Paterno died, he told Posnanski that he wished he had done more to stop Sandusky.
Matt Sandusky, who is now 35, started a foundation to help other survivors of child sexual abuse. He has joined forces with Darkness to Light to raise awareness and teach people how sexual predators operate and what they can do. He hopes to make this his life’s work. If he succeeds, it will be the one good thing to come out of the whole sorry mess.