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FIRST-PERSON: The Penn State debacle: what now?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — First, let me put my cards face up on the table. I am a very dedicated college football fan. Let’s put it this way. My favorite sports are college football, spring football and college recruiting.

This has been true since I was a small boy listening to and watching college football games with my father. Some of my fondest memories of those early years recall times spent discussing college teams, players and games with my dad. Furthermore, I grew up in Texas where high school and college football conduct a perpetual struggle for ascendency, community by community, county by county, across the Lone Star State.

Trust me, I know how Penn State’s avid fans feel. They are devastated. Although I was never a Penn State “fan,” I did have tremendous respect for Joe Paterno and the Penn State motto of “success with honor.” The child sexual abuse scandal covered up for so many years by Penn State’s top leadership would have been shocking at any college or national football power, but perhaps nowhere as shocking than to have it at Penn State, where Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions held themselves to a supposedly higher standard. After all, there was always the looming presence of “Joepa,” the head coach who won a lot more than he lost and maintained enviably high graduate rates for his players.

Now, we know from the Freeh Report that the “culture of reverence” surrounding Joe Paterno and his Penn State Nittany Lions football team caused the school’s top leadership to cover up former top assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual molestation of young boys, even in the team’s athletic facilities. The ugly truth must be acknowledged. The Freeh Report documents that Paterno was cognizant of reports that Sandusky, his defensive coordinator, had molested a child in 1998. Then, in 2001, top university officials apparently were ready to report yet another allegation of sexual abuse, witnessed by graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary, only to have Paterno apparently dissuade them from doing so. Indefensible? Yes. Despicable? Certainly.

How could the Joe Paterno we thought we knew have done such a thing? He was a man of personal moral rectitude. He was a father. How could he let Sandusky remain free to continue to molest and forever damage the lives of vulnerable young boys? Sandusky could have been stopped in 1998 had Paterno and Penn State officials done the right thing, the lawful thing, the honorable thing, and reported him to the police.

They did not do so and that is their indelible shame. They are partially responsible for every boy raped by Sandusky during and after 1998. Nothing can undo the harm they have done to these boys whose lives are forever changed by having had their innocence stolen from them in such a brutal way. All of the penalties leveled against Penn State will forever pale in comparison to the ongoing suffering of the boys victimized by defensive coordinator Sandusky’s vile crimes.

Penn State’s football program will need at least a decade to recover on the field. What then? After all, football is only football. How will the university recover beyond its athletic programs? How does it get its reputation back? I believe the only way the university can do so is to “embrace” their shame and dedicate themselves to committing whatever resources are necessary to build the foremost center in the country for the study of child sexual abuse and how best to treat its millions of victims.

Child sexual abuse is one of the most underreported crimes in America. Millions of our citizens are carrying with them into adulthood the secret, invisible scars of having been molested as children. Penn State should strive to be the number one place in America where people can turn for help and understanding, assisted by the best minds and research that can be provided in a university setting. Penn State’s goal should be that a generation from now, Penn State would be synonymous with the treatment and cure of child sexual abuse, not the aiding and abetting of it.
Richard Land is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

    About the Author

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land, D. Phil, is the Executive Editor of the Christian Post, having previously served as president of the ERLC (1988-2013) and president of Southern Evangelical Seminary (2013-2021). He also serves as the chairman of the advisory board at the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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