penn state sanctions: justice for - and by - survivors

I spent some time last night reading reaction to the sanctions against Penn State University set out by the NCAA. (I should qualify that: I was reading the reactions of intelligent, compassionate people. I don't need to read anything written by people who care more about football than child sexual abuse.) If you haven't read about the sanctions, this is a good explanation.

Many people are upset, feeling that anything short of the so-called "death penalty" - the complete dismantling of Penn State's football program - is a failure of the NCAA.

Although I would have preferred to see the end of Penn State football for five or 10 years, I do think the NCAA sanctions are weighty and meaningful. They force the school to continue to play their vaunted sport in greatly diminished form. As my friend Barry Crimmins said on Facebook, they are "forced to be shitty in public" for a certain length of time, an ongoing public humiliation.

Certain aspects of the sanctions are especially meaningful. I'm pleased that more than a decade worth of wins will be wiped from the official record, because I care about history. Joe Paterno, whose shameful inaction enabled the sexual abuse of children, has been officially stripped of his honours, and that is fitting. I wish he were alive to see it, because he deserves to live with the shame.

The organization that allowed the abuse to continue - the sports equivalent of reassigning the priest so he can rape some kids in a new town - has to live with their ongoing humiliation, too. (Current football players can transfer to other universities and begin playing immediately, so while they are affected, their careers are not scuttled.) The whopping $60 million fine, the ban on postseason play, the reduction in scholarships, and the public exposure and shaming of the program means that Penn State football will not be competitive for at least a decade.

Regarding the fine, there seems to be some misunderstanding: the money doesn't go to the NCAA. The $60 million, roughly the annual revenue of Penn State's football program, will fund programs that assist victims of child sexual abuse and work to educate and prevent abuse. The programs can't be administered by Penn State or the NCAA. So the outrage over the NCAA profiting from Penn State's horrific past is misplaced.

For me, this entire story - the public outrage, the grand jury investigation, the criminal proceedings against Jerry Sandusky, Sandusky's conviction as a serial pedophile, The Freeh Report, and the NCAA actions against Penn State - has been very encouraging. Every moment of it - every second of air time, every pixel and column-inch - has been the result of activism on the part of survivors and their advocates - the social workers, therapists, program directors, community activists - who have refused to be silent.

Fifty years ago, none of this happens. Thirty years ago, a scandal erupts but Penn State is able to contain it and carry on. Today, the school's institutional failure, the power structure that put football and its profit ahead of human rights and the safety and dignity of children, has been exposed and, we hope, dismantled.

This sea change didn't just happen on its own, and it wasn't caused by media attention. Quite the contrary. The media storm, the conviction, and the sanctions are the collective result of every survivor who has ever said, "This was not my fault. This should not have been done to me. If it's been done to you, you are not alone."

My heart goes out to every one of the former children who were Sandusky's victims. Thank you all.

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