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“Humane and Upfront”? How Black Became White at Penn State

During the last few days, I've been rivited by the report generated by the Special Investigative Counsel hired by Penn State to look into the Jerry Sandusky child sexual assault scandal. In particular, I've been fascinated with a critical email exchange that took place between Athletic Director Tim Curley, Vice President Gary Schultz, and President Graham Spanier during February of 2001. During this email exchange, their intended course of action for dealing with an allegation that Sandusky had sexually assaulted a minor in a Penn State athletic facility takes an abrupt 180 degree turn, a turn that will expose countless future minors to Sandusky's predatory behavior.

What fascinates me about this email exchange is not how heinous and unconscionable it seems, but rather how the process is profoundly ordinary. This is not the sort-of thing that happens only in deeply corrupt organizations. It happens every day in all kinds of organizations, even in churches.

During early February 2001, the three administrators apparently became aware of a vague, but disturbing report from a graduate student that Sandusky had engaged in inappropriate contact with a minor associated with Sandusky's Second Mile charity. As such, they developed a plan that would, among other things, report the incident to Second Mile, as well as to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Welfare. They all knew this was going to create a huge media storm, and likely wreck Sandusky's career. It would also call into disrepute their storied football program. Yet they knew, at the start, that it had to be done.

Or did it?

Only a few days after their initial decision was made, Curley wrote the following email to Shultz and Spanier:

The "Joe" who is referenced in this email was Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, It is not difficult to imagine what happened during the meeting between Curley and the legendary coach. Paterno, who had a long, personal relationship with Sandusky, reacted in shock at the proposed plan. The allegations were too vague. Think about what this will do to our program. And this is Jerry we are talking about here. Do you really think he meant harm by this? Even though what he was doing was improper, he probably thought of it as innocent play. He's not a child molester.

And suddenly, all of Curley's insecurities and doubts begin to surface. Had the administration overreacted in deciding to turn Sandusky in?So Curley proposes a new plan: instead of reporting the situation to the DPW, he thinks, we will try to convince Jerry to get help.

President Spanier responds quickly with an endorsement:

You can almost feel a sigh of relief in his voice. Someone else has said it. We don't have to do this, like we all agreed. Then come the rationalizations: this actually goes a "step further" and reflects courage on the part of Curley. And, yes, there is risk, but we can always turn him in down the road if we don't maintain control over the situation. (Of course, in reality, it will only become harder and harder to turn him in as time passes, since they will inevitably be asked to give an account for why they waited).

Then, the line that will haunt the Sandusky fiasco for years to come: the AD's approach, Penn States President concludes "is humane and…reasonable."

Soon thereafter, Schultz chimes in on the subject:

Notice how, even though Schultz enthusiastically parrots Spanier's words, the description of the decision continues to be lightly coded. Second Mile is "his organization." The DPW is the "other organization." Sandusky is referred to in the third person. They know what they are about to do, and they don't want to speak it, because they know what it will sound like if its brought into the light of day.

And thus, for another decade, countless minors were exposed to a known risk of sexual assault in association with Penn State's storied football program. This – they had convinced themselves – was the "humane," "upfront," and "reasonable" way to handle the situation.

How did this happen? How did an initial agenda that seemed perfectly sensible and somewhat responsible lose so much momentum that it eventually became a "non-issue"? It is as if a group of people looking at a black painting suddenly agreed that it was white instead.

Lawyers will answer the question one way. Organizational psychologists another. But I would like to consider this question as a spiritual one. And in doing this, I want to suggest something that may surprise some of you: what all of the players in this drama were wrestling with was what the writers of the Bible would have called one of the "powers." In short, they would have called it a "demon."

Walter Wink, who did some profound work on this subject during his lifetime, says that these "powers" are products of human collective structures. We get together, he says, and form institutions that are bigger than us. They are designed to serve us. However, over time, the become possessed by a spirit. The spirit can be a good one – one that encourages and helps young people to pursue school through football scholarships. But it can also cause us to do evil things. It is this thing that the organization becomes, he argued, that is the "power" that is often described in such condemning language in the Bible.

What was at work at Penn State can properly be described as one of the Powers. And those Powers – seeking to preserve the reputation and financial stability of a program that is respected by millions of Americans – ultimately lured these three people into doing what they very well knew was wrong.

Don't get me wrong. I think these people are responsible for what they did. The "powers" didn't make them do anything, though they did apply profound pressure on them to look the other way when they shouldn't.

But my point here is not about Curley, Schultz, Spanier, Paterno, or even Sandusky. Its about the rest of us. Because there are two ways we can react to this entire scandal:

First, we can scapegoat. We can decide that this is a problem that other people experience, and that we are better people than them. The, we can cry out a collective "shame on them!" and go about our business as normal, thinking that we are somehow immune to the influence of the same "powers" that exist in our own lives.

Or… we could take the Penn State scandal as an object lesson, understanding that we, too, are vulnerable to the same pressures as they are, in our workplaces, in our churches, and in our political organizations. We could come to appreciate the fact that, regardless of our particular religious convictions, a "spirit" of sorts rests on every organization, from Bank of America to a bridge club for retirees. And that spirit can do devastating things to us, and to those around us, if we aren't careful.

I will say it again: the pressures that the Penn State administration was experiencing in February 2001 were not unique. We have all felt them. We have all given in to them (though hopefully not with such horrible consequences). We will all have to deal with them in the future. And if we decide to avoid any self-examination by rushing into a brusque condemnation of those "others" who did this heinous thing, we only become all-the-more vulnerable to their sway in the future.

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