Penn State head coach Joe Paterno talks with reporters after recording his 409th career win 10-7 over Illinois in an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011.
Is Joe Paterno becoming a scapegoat? No, I don’t mean is he being unfairly blamed for things he did, or for things he failed to do which he should have. In light of the Freeh investigation, it seems painfully clear that that the answer to that question is no. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t also being used as a scapegoat.
There is no question that the former football coach, former university president Graham Spanier and others in positions of authority failed at the most fundamental levels in the case of Jerry Sandusky and his ongoing abuse of minors. They failed as leaders, as educators and even as human beings.
In light of the newly released information contained in Freeh’s report regarding the actions and equally dangerous inaction on the part of these authority figures, there should also be new levels of accountability for both what they did and for what they failed to do. But that is only part of the story.
The other part of the story is that Paterno especially, and to some extent college football as a whole, are being used as scapegoats – individual entities upon which an entire community can park its sins and have them carried away into the desert, giving the community a fresh start, as the Hebrew Bible describes in chapter 16 of Leviticus. And who wouldn’t want to find some single entity upon which we could place the blame, send it away and be free of all responsibility ourselves?
After an eight-month inquiry, former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s firm produced a 267-page report that concluded that Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno and other top Penn State officials hushed up child sex abuse allegation against Jerry Sandusky more than a decade ago for fear of bad publicity, allowing Sandusky to prey on other youngsters.
Would that it were so simple – either in the Bible or in life, including life at Penn State. But the ritual of the scapegoat does not work quite as simply as all that, and it actually demands that all those who wish to see their sins carried away, get their own affairs in order first.
In the days of the Bible, that meant that before the high priest could send the animal off into the desert, carrying the community’s sins with it, the community, its institutions and its leaders all had to seek atonement for their past bad acts – yes, all of them, not just the leaders or a particular institution. The same should be true in dealing with Penn State.
Before laying all the blame at the feet of the coach, the school, the sport or any other single person, place or institution, we need to ask about our own place in this scandal or at the very least how likely we would have been to act differently were we to find ourselves in a similar position.
Don’t we all tend to protect who and what we love, sometimes doing both to the detriment of all involved? Don’t we all find ourselves making excuses and failing to see what is right in front of our eyes when it is too painful to do otherwise? I am not excusing it, but simply making sure that before we park all of the blame elsewhere, we see the very same impulses and propensities in ourselves.
Without that self-inventory, the scapegoating ritual doesn’t “work” — at least not the biblical version which is about something far richer and more sophisticated than finding a whipping boy (whipping goat?) whose disappearance relieves us of all anxiety and responsibility.
If we really care about what happened at Penn State, and even more importantly, care about making such things less common, then like the ancient ritual, we need to seize this moment to turn inward as much as outward. To be sure, the more authority and power one has, the greater their responsibility and accountability ought to be.
In the case of Coach Paterno, that means that his legacy must include these dark moments in his career, and for those who were in authority and are still living, their fate should be a matter for the legal system. But all that said, keeping kids safer in the future depends less upon a few bad actors in the past than it does on many good actors in the present.
The question is less about how bad Paterno was, and more about what we can learn from these events, and what responsibilities we are willing to assume in order to keep kids safer. When we have answered those questions, and only then, will any goat, living or dead, be able to carry our problems away.