When linebacker Pete Giftopoulos intercepted a Vinnie Testeverde pass in the end zone with seconds left in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl sealing the victory and national title for the Penn State Nittany Lions, I just knew that it was a case of the good guys once again beating the bad guys. The game was billed as good versus evil and the participants played their parts with extraordinary authenticity. The suit and tie wearing Nittany Lions came into the game as seven points underdogs to the thuggish camouflage wearing University of Miami (Florida) Hurricanes and road off into the Arizona sunset like the white hat wearing heroes of the serial cowboy movies from the 1950’s and 60’s. In spite of my deep Southern roots and partially through my stepmother’s familial connections to the cities of Altoona, Huntington, and Mount Union, I found myself rooting for the gritty, soft spoken boys from the steel mill cities of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. They were like me and were the image of what my parents hoped I would become. Penn State symbolized the old fashioned values cherished by my family: simplicity, honesty, integrity, and industriousness. Their purity was as evident as the dazzling white of their away uniforms. On that early January evening twenty-five years ago, the good guys were a reflection of their leader, Joe Paterno, and prevailed over the blight of major college football, “The U”. Only a handful of people witnessing that triumph of good guys over bad boys had an inkling of what evil lay beneath the surface of all that was decent and pure about Penn State football.
Public reaction to the release of the Freeh report has been swift and with a few notable exceptions has been hailed as a tragic but exemplary exploration of the horrific systemic failures at the highest reaches of the Penn State community which allowed a predator to stalk the hallways and locker rooms of Nittany Lions’ athletics unchecked for decades. The grotesque details that have emerge from the report highlight the shocking amount of power that had been accumulated by the football program and its unwillingness to accept and even hostility towards anything that might cast the program and its leader in an unflattering light. (I have not given the report the full reading it deserves since I’m currently on vacation at the beach, but I was moved enough by the recent attempts by select members of the board of trustees, the former president, and the Paterno family to discredit the report’s claims to download it and read the more damning portions.) Even if only ten percent of the Freeh report is accurate then the Penn State community needs to engage in a period of serious self examination reflecting on the proper position of athletics in the educational process of our nation’s young people. In short, the report makes it abundantly clear that football in Beaver Stadium is the tail that wags the dog in University Park. That the board of trustees has delayed a decision on whether to remove the statue of Joe Paterno from the stadium because they refuse to be bullied by the court of public opinion is just one more indication of the total lack of perspective displayed by the Penn State community. Their arguments sound eerily similar to those made by “heritage” groups in my native South Carolina who vehemently oppose the removal of the confederate battle flag from the State house grounds in spite of how the symbol is perceived by the vast majority of people. Some may walk by the statue and see the good done by Coach Paterno during his tenure, but if even one victim of sexual abuse walks by and has to relive the horror then the statue must go. That the board cannot or will not see this is just one more reason the university community needs to enter into a period of reflection and repentance even if this means encountering the “death penalty” for its football program.
In the Reformed Tradition there is an understanding that some sins are communal in nature. This is why most worshipping communities in the Reformed Tradition include a communal prayer of confession in their intentional encounters with God each week. My own faith tradition the Presbyterian Church USA acknowledges that every individual member of the congregation is not guilty of the sins enumerated each week, but that each person is touched by the sin committed by those in our community. We do not all commit sins of commission but by remaining silent we sin by acts of omission joining with those who have sinned overtly. This calls for us to actively engage in the process of repentance which is much more than just confessing the wrong we have done without addressing the underlying cause of our sinfulness.
The word we translate as repentance is more accurately rendered in English as “the act of turning away from”. For the Penn State community to truly repent for the evil perpetrated in its midst it needs to turn away from the actions that allowed such horrors to continue unobstructed and unreported. They need to turn away from the power, prestige, and money of their football program at least for a little while. They should not wait for the NCAA to decide if it will hand down the dreaded “death penalty”. They should voluntarily shut the program down, release the current players from any obligations to the university and assist them in finding new homes for their athletic skills, they should honor the contracts they have made with other athletic programs and with the current coaching staff, and they should set up programs to assist victims of childhood sexual abuse all while the stadium remains silent during the autumn football season. That would be an example of true repentance and may lead to a season of grace and healing which is desperately needed in Happy Valley.
If Penn State University really wants to redeem its tarnished image, the board of trustees may want to follow the example of the University of Chicago who’s Maroons were a major college football power in the early part of twentieth century and a founding member of the Big Ten conference. Fearing the influence of the athletic program, the university leadership abolished the football program in 1939 and withdrew from the Big Ten in 1946. Lest anyone thinks this be a minor thing, the Maroons were coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg and featured Jay Berwanger, the first recipient of what is now the Heisman trophy. It was painful at the time for them to turn away from the acclaim and prestige that a successful football program provided, but sixty-six years later the school is known not for salacious scandal but academic excellence. It is a beacon of knowledge, truth, and light serving as an example not only for the nation but the entire world. If Penn State wants to reform its image, then dying to the old and being born again as something new just might be in its own best interest.