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"We Are Penn State!”

penn state candlelight vigil

That’s how the cheer goes. And as the university, the community and its Central Pennsylvania heartland come to grips with the enormity of the wrongs that have allegedly been perpetrated, many of us who are not directly associated with that university must nonetheless realize that we are all “Penn State.”

We are Penn State if we first thought of the damage to the university, to the football program, or to Joe Paterno.

We are Penn State if we have ever been part of an organization that chose to keep a scandal quiet and in-house, rather than reporting it to the authorities.

We are Penn State if we also, eventually, responded to the voices that called for acknowledgment of the victims and committed to making sure these abuses could not be repeated.

Every part of this country has high school and college sports (particularly football and basketball) that are the focus of the intense passion of a large part of the population (predominantly but not exclusively males). We tend to put a very high priority on achieving a winning program, even as we pay lip service to the ideals of good sportsmanship.

Joe Paterno was literally idolized because he had achieved a winning program (the winningest football coach in the country!) while, it seemed, maintaining the virtues of good sportsmanship and high academic standards. He embodied virtue. Now, though, we can only say that he met his legal obligation. Penn State and its fans are in shock and mourning at the fall of an idol.

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Every sports program at every level, every coach, every athletic director, every school superintendent or university president needs to ask if they would have behaved any differently. Most, if they are honest, would have to admit that they would not have been any different. The first crisis response would be to protect the institution.

But it’s not just sports. Any organization that permits contact between adults and minors is at risk, and we may be sure that the response to alleged abuse in most cases would be similar: circle the wagons, protect the organization, perhaps expel the offending member, but do not call in the police.

If you think I exaggerate, remember the global cover-up of child sexual abuse by priests of the Catholic Church.

john peeler

Most people, most of us, however, are also capable of doing right. Like the Penn State candlelight rally in support of the victims, we eventually get it. We realize that it is not about what will happen to us, to our programs or institutions. It is about what we allowed to happen to those children, and what we are going to do to make it right.

We are all Penn State.

John Peeler

Photo credit: AP/Matt Rourke