The child sex scandal at Penn State University and a similar story at Syracuse University have fueled criticism and speculation around the country.
The stories from victims, the scenes of students rioting in the streets and questions about what went wrong, what could have been done differently and where do we go from here resonate with sports fans and non-sports fans alike. The incidents also raise issues for college campuses and groups serving children around the country.
On Tuesday, The Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College hosted a panel discussion entitled “Media, Law, Morals and Mass Hysteria: A Tale of the Not-So Happy Valley Scandal at Penn State.”
Beth Rogers, coordinator of reference, instruction and outreach at the library, said the program was the brainchild of professors Dave McCauley and Dr. Robert Rupp.
Both professors served as panelists along with Buckhannon Police Chief Matt Gregory, Wesleyan Director of Athletics Ken Tyler and Wesleyan’s Dean of the Chapel Rev. Angela Gay Kinkead.
McCauley, a sports buff, lecturer at the college and legal representation for the college and the City of Buckhannon, said, “I went home for lunch two weeks ago when the story was first breaking. ESPN had turned into the Penn State Scandal Network. I couldn’t even get a score.”
The news that broke was that former PSU assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had allegedly sexually assaulted several underage boys on university property, or nearby to the university. Sandusky has been indicted by a grand jury on 40 counts of sexual abuse that go back decades. In short order, head football coach Joe Paterno was fired and PSU president Graham Spanier was forced to resign after it was revealed that both men were told about the allegations years ago. Other administrators have also resigned.
“The first awareness that Penn State administration knew there was an issue with Sandusky was in 1997,” McCauley said. “He was allowed to continue to be on staff there for another five years before a second incident forced his resignation. Paterno knew about it, others knew about it, the president of Penn State knew. Organizationally, it was too important to protect the image of Penn State University over exposing what was going on there.”
Chief Matt Gregory spoke about how strong emotions can fuel riotous behavior in the sports world, in Occupy Wall Street protests, even on Black Friday and that is what happened at Penn State with the students.
“It was a knee-jerk reaction to how strongly many felt about Paterno,” he said. “The media really fueled this into a national incident and certainly it deserved its share of focus. Some in law enforcement even suggested that media were responsible for fueling riotous behavior by making statements that things were out of control before they got out of control.”
However, Gregory said that this type of response highlights why victims are so unwilling to come forward in these type of crimes because of the shame and fear of retaliation.
“This type of response highlighted the wrong thing,” he said. “Especially for those that felt that Penn State was in the wrong. It neglected the true victims, the children that were the victims of this.”
Rupp talked about the inaction of those who did nothing.
“Legally, they did the right thing,” he said. “Morally it is irresponsible.”
“We give a lot of lip service to kids,” he said. “We’re talking about power, politics and money. The losers in this case are the kids. Those in power, they didn’t want to hear, they didn’t want to see and they certainly didn’t want to talk about it. I’m tired of us paying lip service to kids and allowing power, politics and money to win.”
Tyler discussed how the Penn State scandal “transcends athletics and football and touches us all on many different levels.”
When Tyler was employed at Albright College as an assistant athletic director and basketball coach he worked with Sandusky’s son, E.J., and even had lunch one time with Sandusky.
What has happened at Penn State and Syracuse has caused athletic departments to examine their policies.
“Joe Paterno, Tim Curley —who was the athletic director — and the president of Penn State acted to protect the image and the reputation of the university and the football program rather than the innocence of those boys,” he said.
“It is almost surreal that the Syracuse basketball situation, one of the top five basketball programs in the country, has come so quickly on the heels of it,” Tyler added.
Kinkead discussed the ethical implications from the scandals and said the church is learning its lesson in the area of protecting children.
For example, the United Methodist Church uses Safe Sanctuaries, which are guidelines that spell out that two adults need to be supervising children and youth, and no one should ever be alone with a child or youth.
Sometimes people do not want to take the time to do background checks because it is too expensive, according to Kinkead.
“We need to do the ethical thing,” she said. “We need to do the right thing.”
Tyler said he recently participated in a conference call with the college’s insurance provider.
“We talked about background checks not only for our staff but for folks that are coming on campus during the summer and running camps,” he said. “We need to know about these people.”
During the question and answer portion, one student asked if Tyler would consider hiring any of the Penn State football staff or athletic staff.
“As an athletic director, I would have a very hard time allowing my head football coach to hire a Penn State coach,” he said. “I wouldn’t want the negative publicity, the public relations nightmare and I wouldn’t want ESPN camped out on my door step for all the wrong reasons.”
Another student asked about Syracuse being able to join the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I’m sure the ACC is wringing its heads and gnashing its teeth,” Tyler said.
“The NCAA has contacted both Penn State and Syracuse to let them know they are monitoring the situation,” he said. “They will be looking for NCAA violations after the legal process. It sounds crazy, but legal problems probably won’t stop them from joining the ACC. NCAA problems could.”
Another student asked about colleges and universities not holding camps any more.
Tyler said, “Isn’t that a depressing thought? I ran my own basketball camps for years and am very proud of them and proud of the boys and girls that came through and the counselors we had. I believe, if done right, those types of environments can be life-changing.
“I will be communicating to our coaching staff and we will be ratcheting up standards,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can continue camps and all they are good for but hopefully this situation will allow us to do it in a better way and a safer way.”
During the final remarks, the panelists raised a few more points.
Kinkead asked, “What if we saw something happening? What would be our response?”
Gregory reminded people to always be vigilant.
Tyler thanked the students who came out to the forum, were engaged and asked questions.
“I think tonight’s the type of night we can all be proud to be at Wesleyan,” he said.
Organizers said about 60 to 75 people turned out for the forum.