Even non-sports fans are by now aware of the sickening scandal at Penn State University.
To recap the basics: A former Penn State assistant football coach has been indicted by a Grand Jury for the sexual abuse of several minors. Furthermore, nobody in power at Penn State did anything of substance about it when the alarm was raised.
The individual accused of these crimes, Jerry Sandusky, is presumed innocent until proven guilty. And that is as it should be. However, we do have the full, published Grand Jury testimonies now. (I've read the report carefully). But what I primarily want to blog about are the institutions involved -- universities, sports -- and those "at large."
First, a Couple of Points on the Penn State Case
1/ To get my moral biases out of the way from the start, I want to say that I am of the opinion that ANYONE who saw, suspected or was told ANYTHING about child abuse at Penn State should have IMMEDIATELY called the police. University protocol be damned. (The Grand Jury report indicates the correct procedures the university's administration, by law, should have, but didn't, follow.) If it was your child or mine, would we expect anything less? To me, if the testimonies recorded at the Grand Jury hold up at trial, this is the central damning truth of the whole horror story and EVERY person who is found to have failed to take sufficient action after having their suspicions raised should be punished severely. Even if -- and it's a huge "if" -- Sandusky is found innocent, the fact that something so serious was alleged was enough to get the authorities involved.
2/ I am not oblivious to the fact that there have been cases where people have been wrongly accused of child abuse crimes and it has done great damage to them. But there is simply no better option nor safer course than to get the police involved as soon as possible when something like this is reported. In this case, if the testimonies hold, one or more youngsters may have been spared abuse if the authorities had been alerted right away. Furthermore, anyone who believes in the notion of handling things "in house" can see how miserably this has failed. Like most institutions, Penn State University has a perverse vested interest in protecting its image -- a horrific bias that it should have, but didn't, overcome.
The Problem With Institutions
But now to the point of institutional failure ("House On Fire", after all, being primarily concerned with institutional change):
1/ As monstrous as the alleged crimes are, this is about much more.
This is about how power and blind allegiance (e.g. nationalism), glamor (e.g. in sports) and hero worship (e.g. the "Idiot Culture") have skewed our thinking on what's important. (There's a very good article by Howard Bryant on this, vis-a-vis the Penn State scandal, at ESPN.com.) Then there's the money factor. Sports (including college sports) -- like so many institutions -- are about big money. BIG money. Don't think for a second that that isn't part of the equation in this nauseating mess.
2/ Sports have become a sick joke and college sports are corrupt.
Much of my young life was devoted to sports and my break as a feature writer was thanks to the world of sports. So I'm not a sports hater. But I'm becoming one. Sports have changed radically over the past few decades (the timeline differs a little from country to country). Whereas the very best athletes used to play for the love of the game, today many of them won't get out of bed for less than a small fortune. The college level (in America) is a stepping stone to this and far more corrupt than most people involved ever want to talk about. That's too much to write about here. The point is this: Big-time sports have become mega institutions in our society, generating massive revenues and having a great deal of influence over millions upon millions of people. (Our day is ruined if our favorite team loses but a million people can be starving to death in the Horn of Africa, due to the institutions that run the planet, and, well, that's just a shame.) That's a lot of power. And it's poorly regulated -- at all levels. What's happened at Penn State is just one example that has come to the surface that well illustrates this point.
3/ Universities (and other institutions) are not sacred.
In the United States, and elsewhere to differing degrees, universities have become fiefdoms. They are largely (not completely) about money, power, prestige and aura. About recruiting students (customers) who generally pay big fees. About having stellar sports programs to add to the glamor and appeal of the school/product and to bring in massive revenues. About working with government bodies and corporations on research that isn't always of an ethical nature. In short, universities are not what they should essentially be: places of learning, free expression, free thought, and inclusiveness. Places that produce informed and open minds. Instead, they are highly political, highly dogmatic institutions that are artfully propagandized, thriving on the blind allegiance of many of their alumni and the fans of their sports teams. This must change.
4/ Power poisons.
Mr. Bryant's ESPN.com article was aptly titled: "Penn State's failure of power." It is an excellent piece that I would only mildly challenge in one or two places. But his central thesis, that the power elite at Penn State made their priority the protection of that university's "reputation" (and, thereby, their own prestige), is dead on. Clearly, our colleges/universities are nowhere near democratic or transparent enough, and their priorities are out of whack. No, we shouldn't condemn all university administrators due to these recent events. At the same time, I would contend that those same events are just the tip of an unholy iceberg. Not necessarily one made up of the same kinds of crimes, but it stands to reason that there is much more going on than we know about. (Examples that have come to light at different times include: rapes in dormitories; college apparel made in sweatshops; discrimination; preferential treatment for varsity athletes; undemocratic procedures; and the aforementioned wheeling and dealing with the government and corporations.)
5/ All institutions must be held accountable -- thoroughly and systematically.
In fact, in my opinion, the structure of society must necessarily change so that the grassroots ARE the primary institution. That's true democracy. That's a fair society. But until that happens, universities, governments, corporations, financial institutions, the media, churches, the legal system, the military, the police, the public relations industry, the general education system, the WTO, World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, the United Nations and on down the line, all must be accountable and transparent to the people. Until we reconstruct society to be more egalitarian, democratic, participatory and just, we need to DEconstruct these institutions in all ways necessary and practicable.
Let's always look at the big picture and root causes. Otherwise we will be forever putting out brush fires -- and they'll just continue to break out.
And may justice be done in the Penn State case, all the guilty parties held accountable, and one hell of a lesson learned by us all -- several lessons, in fact.
You can read the Grand Jury report here. WARNING: THE CONTENTS OF THIS REPORT ARE VERY GRAPHIC AND EXTREMELY DISTURBING. (The primary reason I have included this link is because the report illustrates the institutional malfeasance involved. From that we can get a sense of how institutional power permeates the actions and psychology of the individuals in those institutions. Do not interpret this as an excuse for the individuals involved. It is not. It is a sociological observation that has many layers, offshoots and nuances.)
ONE WAY TO FIGHT THE TYRANNY OF INSTITUTIONS is to support the Occupy movement. Please take a look at FUEL THE MOVEMENT!