I can remember where I was eight years ago when the news about Jerry Sandusky broke. It was the first weekend of November. A rare weekend that was free from Blue Band commitments since the football team had a bye week. I was scrolling through the Facebook news feed when I saw our drum major share one of the first articles to break with the story of Jerry Sandusky’s arrest with a simple status update. “Oh no….”
Since the news broke on Saturday and the details were sparse, it was difficult to tell at the time just how significant this story was. I know I didn’t expect the story to get the traction that it did. Not because if wasn’t a significant crime and story. But because I had never been closely associated with a story this big before. But by the time Monday rolled around it was the talk of every news station. It was everywhere on TV and the news stations had their vans lined up in front of campus, reporting from the town where it all transpired.
To be honest, I didn’t know an outrage nationally could occur this quickly. And I had never been a part of a community as rocked as ours was by this sudden turn of events (or at least the public revealing of past events). My only connection to the story was that I was a student at the university. But that didn’t keep people in the comment sections from saying that students like me were a part of the problem. A school, student body, and family of alumni that for years touted “Success With Honor” as one of our main mantras was left wondering was there ever really honor associated with that success?
Friends of mine lost sleep over Joe Paterno’s firing and soon-to-follow death. Some students transferred out of fear of remaining associated with an institution who’s name had been significantly tarnished. And trust in the leadership of the university and its athletic programs was shattered. Nowhere near as shattered as the lives of the victims must have been. But nonetheless, the sins of a few men had much wider ripples that extended beyond these young boys. Ripples that extended to their families and to the community at-large.
One cannot help but think about how much this story undermined what so many thought they had at Penn State. A seemingly infallible persona in Joe Paterno. A football program that was supposed to serve as the epitome of molding men and student athletes. A football program that was above reproach. And it was an identity that so many fans and students adopted willingly and joyfully.
The removal of the Joe Paterno statue eerily represented the sudden decline in the institution’s public image. And many were left wondering if Penn State ever was representative of the ideals we flaunted.
Just a quick reminder, the Penn State Scandal wasn’t the first scandal to ever occur. Nor will it be the last unfortunately. A similar one from the recent past occurred within the Roman Catholic Church. A similar coverup of sexual crimes against minors that had been pervasive throughout leadership. And just like the news with Jerry Sandusky, the revealing of these transgressions and the subsequent concealment of these issues, led to a similar distrust of authority within the church, widespread abandonment of the Catholic Church and the questioning of the Christian faith in general. This scandal leaves us with similar questions. Did the church or Christianity ever represent the ideals they claimed to hold?
The Penn State Scandal, a representation of when school spirit and the protection of an identity as a successful athletic program goes bad. The scandal within the Catholic Church, a representation of when a church hierarchy degenerates into an institution that is more preoccupied with preserving its image than serving as ambassadors for Christ and protecting the least of these. But the scandals don’t have to be at a national scale for them to impact us.
How about when you find out a friend has stabbed you in the back? Was that friendship ever really genuine? Did I ever mean anything to that person? What do I do with all those memories that at the time seemed so positive? Hasn’t this backstabbing distorted these memories and left us jaded?
Or how about being cheated on by a significant other? Doesn’t every memory come under immense scrutiny? Where did it go wrong? Did they ever love me? Can I ever see myself being back in a serious relationship or trusting someone else again? Could a child of divorced parents ever convince themselves to pursue marriage after seeing it fall apart?
And what about the revealing of significant errors made by politicians, CEOs, and celebrities? Does this undercut our ability to have any confidence in them or the organizations or agencies they represent?
The list goes on. We see parenting, politics, religion, friendship, sports, and life itself done in so many ways that are to the detriment of others. And when these seemingly good things go bad they eat away at our certainty in what has often served as pillars and foundations for our lives.
When I was at Penn State, this scandal fractured the school pride that I had at the time. To associate with Penn State was embarrassing for a while. My self-worth wasn’t wholly tied up in the school’s image, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t partially connected. This scandal forced me to ponder two questions.
The first was, where should I put my faith if these other things have failed me. I have never been perfect in my dependency on God, but He has served as that firm foundation. He has been unchanging, faithful, and dependable through the difficult chapters of life even when I haven’t always been steady in my response and trust. He was before dependable before the scandal rocked my community. He was during it. And He has continued to be afterwards. I’ve tried to set aside these foundations I formerly had and that did not hold up in difficult circumstances. And to the degree that these foundations have been exchanged for my faith in God, is the degree to which my security improved.
The second question has taken a longer time to answer. That question is how do we move forward after being hurt by others and/or institutions that fail us. Sometimes we withdrawal. Sometimes we lash out in anger. Sometimes we quickly try to find something new to fill that void left in our life. We will all respond in slightly different ways in the immediate aftermath of something significant like a scandal.
What I have found to be true in the long term though is that in almost every scandal or breakdown in relationships and communities, it is because something that was good became twisted from it’s ideal purpose.
The Penn State Scandal hurts because school spirit and community are not in and of themselves bad things. But when that school spirit motivates people to worship coaches and conceal criminals to protect an image, it has been distorted.
The scandal in the Catholic Church hurts because the church itself has incredible power to love and serve people. But when those who are entrusted to lead the flock, protect the wolves in sheepskin, the power of the church gets turned into something incredibly demonic and all authority and credibility gets destroyed.
The same goes for our relationships. Divorce is so unfortunate because the potential good of a healthy marriage, not just for the individuals, but for their families and community is lost. A broken friendship casts a shadow of how incredible a dependable friendship can be.
Just because a friendship or a relationship go as planned doesn’t mean we need to give up on all friendships and relationships. Just because a leader or an organization fails us, doesn’t mean we need to disassociate from any and every group.
As C.S. Lewis states in his book “The Great Divorce,” the stronger an angel, the fiercer devil it is when it falls. Some of the most tragic and scandalous things we see in the world don’t occur because they are inherently evil. It’s because something that has the potential for much good has fallen, been corrupted, and now has the power to do so much damage.
As I reflect on eight years since the Penn State Scandal broke, I continue to think about these two things. What is my foundation built on? And am I willing to open myself up to the good that can come from things that have gone poorly? Am I willing to up myself up when I’ve been betrayed before?
There can still be some good there. It will take courage to fight through the instinct to pull ourselves back. We just have to keep a discerning eye, always watching for when the good goes bad. And remembering that even the bad can show us glimmers of the good when we’re willing to search for it.