Penn State: How "Good People" Sacrificed the Welfare of a Few for the Prosperity of Many

5 years ago

penn state riotIn a basement under one of the beautiful buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window…In the room a child is sitting…

These words are form Ursula LeGuin’s chilling short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” You may remember the story from school, because it is often taught in high school English classes: a moral lesson about what, or rather whom, a society is willing to sacrifice in order to maintain its own happiness, its own illusion of utopia. Omelas is a beautiful city, given to festivals and music and great displays of community fellow feeling. Omelas, like Happy Valley, loves a good parade. Everyone in Omelas is happy, save for one: the child alone in the locked basement room, the child who closes its eyes because it fears the dirty mops in the corner, which appear terrifying in the dark. The child is always referred to as it, rather than as he or she; the child’s suffering is easier for the good citizens of Omelas to endure if the child is objectified–an it rather than a little girl or little boy. The door is always locked, until it isn’t.

Sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes…

The people of Omelas are all implicated in the child’s fate, because “they all know it is there.” But they have a great stake in looking away from the child’s suffering:

They all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weather of their skies, depend wholly on the child’s abominable misery.

Much depended upon the silence of the men who knew about Jerry Sandusky’s systematic abuse of children. For Penn State, if Sandusky’s crimes were made known, there was a great deal to lose.

“I should have done more, ” Paterno said to the fans who cheered him on after the trustees let him go. Mike McQueary, upon witnessing the rape of a child, left the building and called his father, who called Paterno, who consulted Schultz and Curely, who kicked it on up the line to Spanier. Not one of those powerful men went into the basement to save the child. The welfare of many was at stake. One can imagine all sorts of rationalizations going through the minds of those who knew, those who could have gone against the wishes of the whole and spoken out for the one. Perhaps they felt that Penn State does so much good for so many. It is very likely they thought of the tens of millions of dollars the football program brings in each year. Perhaps they felt that the program they had worked so hard to build did not deserve this kind of scrutiny. Perhaps they were thinking of the players. Perhaps they were thinking of their own children and grandchildren, who loved the Nittany Lions.

Perhaps Mike McQueary, Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, Graham Spanier, and everyone else who knew (and we would be very naive to believe there weren’t others who knew), when forced to consider one nameless child, eight nameless children, in a basement room in the dark, or in a shower after hours, did not allow themselves to think, “This little boy is someone’s son.” Maybe, instead, they told themselves, “This is one kid, maybe eight kids, maybe more, but they are not like my kids, really, not like my own well-protected children who come from a good home and a loving family. The kid in the shower has already suffered at the hands of fate, and what is a little more suffering for these nameless children, really, when there is so much, for so many, at stake?”

Of course, in fact, we will never really know what they were thinking. We can only speculate why they chose to look away, why they chose not to go to the police and save the children they knew about, not to mention the other children whom they had to suspect would be victimized if Sandusky was allowed to continue his relationship with Second Mile.

John McQueary, Mike McQueary’s father, says Mike would like to tell his side of the story. I think we would all like to hear it. After all, he was there; we weren’t. ‘

I think we would all like to hear Dottie Sandusky’s story too. We would like to know why she telephoned Victim 7 (as noted in the Grand Jury report) “in the weeks prior to Victim 7?s appearance before the Grand Jury” and left a message “saying the matter was very important.” Did she want to ask him if it was true? Did she hope to persuade him to change his story? Did she believe–because anything else was unthinkable–that the alleged victim had misconstrued her husband’s intentions? When the allegations kept coming, were they simply too horrible for a wife to believe? Was it unfathomable to her that the man she married, and with whom she raised children, could have committed these crimes against children?

Thousands of Penn State students say “JoePa” was not in the wrong, that he did what he was required, by law, to do. In LeGuin’s story, only one person actually kicks the child. The others simply observe. “The others never come close.”

In the Penn State story, Jerry Sandusky, if the allegations prove true, is clearly the monster. Jerry Sandusky is the one who groomed those children, who “saved” them through Second Mile and ostensibly, in doing so, made them feel somehow indebted to him. “It’s very hard to say no to Jerry,” one of the victims said. It was Jerry Sandusky who raped them.

But Sandusky could not have acted without the silent, if disgusted, complicity of a coterie of adults who were willing to look away. “I should have done more,” Paterno said.

They would like to do something for the child, but there is nothing they can do, If the child were brought up to the sunlight out of that vile place…all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed…To exchange the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness for the happiness of one…

Those who knew about Sandusky’s actions made a very specific choice: they chose the happiness of many, the prosperity of an institution and its leaders, over the well-being of a few underprivileged children. The utopic dream of a football program could not continue to exist without secrecy, without the sacrifice a few unfortunates on the altar of the Nittany Lions.

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