I do not coach football or any other sport, but I have been around a lot of coaches and their staffs. There is something of a truth that exists in big programs (and programs that think they are big): family. All big sports programs talk about how they are like families. Even when you graduate, you are still in the family. Coach will still think about you, and will still be there to support you.
This is a good thing … it can be very positive to be a part of something bigger than just a team … families comfort you when you are down and help you through tough times. I would never say that it is bad that sports teams do this. Especially or young guys who desperately want to feel useful at a a time they and their parents are increasingly at odds … this kind of special relationship can be very good. I have known more than a few kids whose lives improved drastically because of a strong relationship with coach and teammates.
But there is a downside to families … families all have their garbage and dark secrets. No family is without them. For low key families, there is the old saying about not airing dirty laundry in public. That’s not too bad a thing. The problem is, sometimes the loyalty one is expected to show to their family, coupled with not airing the dark side of the family, create a (sometimes unintended) culture of denial and covering up. When that family is tied to a multi-million dollar business venture like college football … the need for secrecy on such matters increases in order to save jobs and money. Sometimes, that creates a scenario where secrets that desperately need to be let out aren’t …
I have a nagging suspicion this is what happened in Happy Valley, PA recently.
As I am understanding this, you have a 28 year old grad assistant who walks into the showers … the lights are on and the water is on, and it shouldn’t be … he then says that he hears the rhythmic slapping of skin together … he investigates. He finds his former coach (and emeritus staff member whom he now works with), doing something unspeakably horrible to a young boy.
Now stop and think for a moment … you are on a street … you see a naked ten year old getting raped by a random person. There is a strong instinct to do something … it may be disgusting to physically intervene, but you yell, you tell him to stop, you run and call the police … you beat the life out of the monster … there are a lot of things you are feeling that you should do.
Yet, this 28-year old ran to his office and called his father … and he takes his father’s advice to abandon the boy and come home. 24 hours later, the finally tell the head football coach.
One might think that this 28-year old is himself inhuman to abandon this boy to a sexual predator at a moment of supreme vulnerability …. or that something else overrode that instinct to save the kid and get the police. I suspect that it was that family loyalty … calling the police = very bad publicity … this is his former coach … a man he has had great respect for. Only a lengthy formal and informal indoctrination of not airing dirty laundry would cause the average person to not take more action.
The fact is, I feel bad for Joe Paterno … this is no way for one of the most celebrated tenures in American sports history to end. However, he certainly must have had a hand in creating a culture of insularity … under no circumstances does any bad news get out to the public before it is filtered. In some cases this is for good reason. Sometimes players have those bad moments that require them to be punished, and yet they don’t deserve ESPN broadcasting all of the particulars all over the world. Silence can be good in those situations. But sometimes that overriding “save the program” mentality can kick in a the wrong times, and the right people make bad decisions.
The tragedy is that we may never know exactly how many young boys were abused … we may never know why Joe Paterno, after finding this out about his former assistant coach and friend, chose not to follow up … chose to never inquire why this man wasn’t in jail/standing trial. You can only hope that this might be the beginning of some kind of healing for the kids who got abused.