In a previous entry (Happy Valley – The Documentary Part 1.), four conclusions are presented about the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case at Penn State University as background for viewing Happy Valley, the documentary produced in 2014 about the scandal by filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev. To summarize: Sandusky is a justly convicted pedophile; his modus operandi of using home, Second Mile, and football facilities is established; Coach Paterno and three other administrators are culpable for not reporting a known case of Sandusky abuse to authorities, and for that lost their jobs; and, fourth, that the football program was complicit in enabling Sandusky’s pedophilia.
This second blog entry comments on the film from an adult learning point of view, citing quotations for illustration. Adult learning is a personal and professional interest of mine. I had the pleasure of teaching in a Masters Program for Adult Educators for two decades. One focus of adult education is to help adults attain productive and satisfying lives through purposive education. A second focus, mine in this instance, is more radical. Do people over the age of 18, whether well- or ill-educated, learn from life experience over time, and become better, finer, stronger, wiser, more responsible adults?
From this viewpoint, the Sandusky affair offers a learning moment, an educational opportunity for people everywhere and at Penn State to learn important lessons and to grow in understanding, responsibility, and citizenship. Viewers of the documentary can ask themselves whether or not this is true of them as they ask it about people shown in the film.
I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t confess a longstanding disappointment and bias of mine. I rarely have seen adults learn or change much in adulthood. It obviously can and does happen. Still, the achievement is rare. Adulthood is too often habit-driven and repetitive. Personal philosophies and perspectives are vigorously stated and defended no matter the circumstances. Frankly, I don’t find much adult learning going on in the film either, but perhaps you will disagree. To keep the standards modest and simple, look for two qualities: “considered judgment,” thoughtful conclusions that take into consideration all of the available facts, and “appropriate focus,” attention to the most important issues of paramount concern in the case. If you see either or both of those, let’s grant that some adult learning and development has occurred. Absent such outcomes, people will be found to mostly tread in place, or worse, confuse matters and lose themselves in rationalization and denial.
Commentary on Events in Film
The big event around which everything else in the documentary pivots—beyond the indictment and conviction of Sandusky—is the firing of Joe Paterno. That set off a media blitz around the Paterno family and their home, and a student protest and riot ensues. Soon afterwards a hard and deep divide shows up in participant attitudes. The divide is shown clearly in the words of Jay Paterno, Joe’s son, and the attorney, Andrew Shubin, who represents Sandusky’s victims. In the film, Jay Paterno is quoted just before the verdict is announced in the Sandusky trial. Shubin is quoted right after the conviction.
Jay Paterno, the coach’s son, and himself an Assistant Coach of football at Penn State, concludes:
Everybody in this community is kind of in the same boat, because the national media, and a lot of other people, came to town with their stories all written, kind of casting a net over everybody; they put us all in the same boat as having enabled this to happen. The truth is there was no enabling of Jerry Sandusky. The truth is that this is not a Penn State issue; it is not a Joe Paterno issue. It’s a Jerry Sandusky issue.
Andrew Shubin says:
The community, it seems to me, felt that this individual has caused horrific damage to many children, and to a community, and to a football program, and to a way of life, and that the judicial system has punished the person that is responsible, and that is enough, hoping that the football program and its values survive. I think that would be a dangerous lesson to take, because that’s just the beginning of the story. It would be convenient but not appropriate (to in effect say:) ‘Sandusky has been convicted, what is there left to do. Let’s move on and play football.’
Shubin later adds:
You can knock out the actual predator. That’s the easy part. The tougher stuff is self examination, what we did as a community to enable this. Why did it happen? How did we not see it?
* * * * *
The film begins: A large field, farmland perhaps, a panorama of rolling hills, a slow, steady procession, a cavalcade, ah, a funeral cortège? What cometh at this pace? What is foreshadowed? Ah, a tailgate party! Football season again. The pall has lifted.
* * * * *
The Penn State scandal came on like a storm roiling through the valley, a whirlwind of powerful forces caught in a vortex, spitting out actions and consequences at shocking, breakneck speed, and then moving on. The most powerful of these forces is the Penn State football program, bearing the aura of Joe Paterno’s persona and values, the touchstone that makes “Happy Valley” happy, the totem around which community and academic life revolves. The legal system and the media are the two other powerful forces driving the weather in the film as the facts of Sandusky’s criminality are revealed.
In the quote from Jay Paterno announcing Sandusky’s sole responsibility for the problem, viewers discover that the outside media are the responsible force that led rational, cooler minds astray. Outside folks brought this pestilence on the local community. His remarks also clear the air for football.
* * * * *
A certain religious quality pervades the Happy Valley experience. There is a kind of religious faith in football and and a deep reverence for Joe Paterno, whose deification is symbolized by a statue stationed outside Beaver Stadium. The coach is sometimes called St. Joe, and is considered a “beacon” by many and “perfect” by some. The coach doesn’t agree, but no matter, fans do.
Matt Sandusky, Jerry’s adopted son and a victim of his father’s abuse, explains early in the film:
If you’re religious, then in this town, God is Joe Paterno, but then Jesus would be Jerry. They could do what they wanted, and they could do no wrong.
There is also an image of Joe calling his team to give thanks in prayer before a game. God can be called in by the coach to bless the team and their games.
Later in the documentary, we learn that the NCAA Consent Decree, adopting language taken from the Louis Freeh report, the product of the independent investigation commissioned by the Trustees, frames the basic problem at Penn State as an excessive “reverence for football.”
Similarly, Attorney Shubin, explaining why Sandusky wasn’t caught at Penn State, and might have been caught elsewhere, likens the single minded-focus on football at Penn State to a kind of local “nationalism” a term with affinity to the sacred.
* * * * *
The religious dimension to Happy Valley is crucial in understanding the emotional firestorm ignited by the firing of Paterno, a mere two days after the indictment against Sandusky was announced. It created a new set of victims: Paterno, the football program, students, fans, alumni, and townspeople, the whole of Happy Valley. A religion was under attack.
A God had been deposed. An icon had been desecrated. Even more incredible, Paterno learns he has aggressive cancer five days after his termination, and within a week of the indictment. He would die three months later, and be deeply mourned before the Sandusky trial was even held and before his son pronounced his conclusions on culpability.
* * * * *
Fathers and sons, and their relationship, is a big part of the story, as is the concept of family. Three sons are featured: Scott and Jay Paterno, and Matt Sandusky. The fathers are Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. Loyalty is expected of sons by fathers and families, and both men receive considerable loyalty from their sons. Matt is later accused of “flipping” on Jerry when he offers to testify.
* * * * *
This is also a men and boys, and boys to men story. Joe Paterno manages the football team as a father raising sons to manhood. The players passage into adulthood as confident, competent, high character men, professionals, and citizens, is all important to Joe, more important than anything else, as symbolized by the team’s regular attainment of an 85% graduation rate. He is JoePa, the quintessential father to the sons of Penn State, indeed to the whole student body. The library is named after him and his wife Sue. Penn State is an extended family (“Camelot” in Sue Parteno’s word) headed by JoePa.
Similarly, Jerry Sandusky is the founder of The Second Mile, a non-profit devoted to giving troubled boys a chance to succeed, a place for them to gain skills, feel loved, gain confidence and have a voice. Summer camp and foster placements are among the provided services. Matt is attending summer camp when Jerry meets and determines to adopt him, an adoption approved by the court despite the objection and concerns (the “mind games” Jerry played with him) of Matt’s mother.
Joe Paterno appears with Sandusky as Jerry describes his dream of founding a charity such as The Second Mile to a journalist. The Second Mile was founded in 1977, the year Jerry was appointed Defensive Coordinator by Joe. One gathers that the values that built the football program are now to inform The Second Mile, that The Second Mile would be a value-added community enhancement birthed by the football program. Jerry’s father had been a youth programs professional.
Jerry is also a former football player at Penn State, then coached by Rip Engels, when Paterno was an assistant, so he’s a son of Penn State too, in the Penn State family, and a symbolic son of Paterno.
* * * * *
Two women are central to the film. Both are wives and mothers married to the two football coach colleagues. They are Sue Paterno and Dotttie Sandusky. Loyalty is expected of them, and family maintenance too. Both have provided complete and indefatigable support to their husbands and defense of their husbands and families to this very day. Both families have daughters in the family, but the daughters do not speak in the film.
* * * * *
The shocking phenomenon, it dawns on the viewer, is that Joe Paterno has been transformed by fans into Sandusky’s primary victim, displacing the eight actual victims who testify in the trial. One of the victims, before the Sandusky trial takes place, watches the Paterno funeral cavalcade as it parades before thousands of mourners. He experiences “fear” that his own story won’t be believed in court.
* * * * *
A set of troubling images are shown of verbal, bordering on physical, violence at the Paterno statue (before the statue is removed from the site). Fans in varied assemblages are incensed at a lone male protester who is standing before the statue carrying a sign critical of Paterno. They want the protester out of there, away from the statue. His citing of First Amendment rights and of loyalty to Penn State doesn’t save him from verbal assault, elbowing, and the destruction of the sign.
* * * * *
When the head of the NCCA, Mark Emmert, announces sanctions against the football program under the terms of the Consent Decree negotiated with the Board of Trustees, frustration and anger intensifies; confusion and misunderstanding sets in. A sixty million dollar fine; four year loss of bowl eligibility; four year reduction of grants in aid; five year probation; vacation of all wins from 1998 through 2011,with the loss subtracted from Paterno’s record total of 409; waiver of transfer rules for players; and reserved right to penalize individuals depending on the outcome of trials.
The confusion came from the NCAA’s brandishing of a sophisticated concept of the fundamental “problem” at Penn State that had enabled Sandusky to function: a culture of excessive “reverence” for football. This sounded really weird considering the NCAA’s role in promoting college football. If “reverence for football” was the problem, tell it to Tallahassee, Tuscaloosa, Norman, and Eugene; Penn State runs “a clean program,” 85% of the players actually graduate, team and family is emphasized. Paterno wouldn’t even allow the names of players on jerseys. This is the sort of reverence a football crazy nation should praise. Penn Staters are proud of their team. What’s this excessive “reverence” about?
What the critics didn’t know, or if they did, wouldn’t allow themselves to understand, was that all of this excessive “reverence” of football talk about an out of control football program dominating the culture of the university, came straight from the Freeh report. The NCAA did not conduct new research. They merely accepted the Freeh Report’s conclusions and recommendations because the Penn State Trustees had commissioned the report and had accepted its contents. The Trustees had approved the conclusions already. All the NCAA did was concoct the sanctions.
Allow me to make a couple of points here about adult learning. Adults, it’s evident, don’t read much anymore; we mostly push “like “ and “share” buttons if the sound of a piece of writing is pleasant. How many people actually read all the key documents in a case like Sandusky case? It’s of course impossible to know. Still, we know time is precious and people feel rushed. This time pressure makes it easier to take on the victim cloak for oneself on hearsay evidence than it is to read everything cogent before making up one’s mind.
Keep in mind that Spanier and colleagues didn’t inform the trustees about the Grand Jury investigation until the roof fell in. That’s what the dominance of football reference is really about, its destructive and deleterious effects on university administration. A conclusion suggests itself: the adults who learned the most and instituted the most important reforms after the Sandusky scandal are not prominent in the movie. Most do not appear at all; they are unseen leaders. This surmise is based on the reputation of George Mitchell, the Consent Decree officer charged with overseeing compliance with its recommendations.
Here is the key quote from the Freeh Report on the Penn State culture:
The University is a major employer, landholder and investor in State College, and its administrators, staff, faculty and many of its Board members have strong ties to the local community. Certain aspects of the community culture are laudable, such as its collegiality, high standards of educational excellence and research, and respect for the environment. However, there is an over‐emphasis on “The Penn State Way” as an approach to decision‐making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives, and an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the University’s reputation as a progressive institution. (p. 129)
* * * * *
Sue Paterno, Joe’s widow, commissions an independent study of the Sandusky scandal to see if it could be figured out how it was possible that Sandusky had got away with his crimes undetected for so many years. She knew little about pedophiles, reported that she and Joe had never even talked about the subject, and was sure that Sandusky had fooled Joe along with everyone else. One product of the review, a report by Jim Clemente entitled Child Sexual Victimization is featured in the film. Mrs. Paterno recommends the report to everyone. Sandusky turns out to be an example of the “nice guy acquaintance” type of offender, one of the five types the paper discusses; he was more than good at it; he was an exemplar nonparallel. He fooled everyone, including the Paternos. She believe the report exonerates Joe, herself, and a lot of people. A key section of the Clemente Report reads:
“Nice-guy” child sex offenders are much more prevalent, effective, and prolific than the stereotypical “stranger danger” type offender. In fact, the vast majority of children who are sexually victimized are offended against by someone they know. We call those offenders “acquaintance offenders.” The category of “acquaintance offenders” includes any non-stranger and any non-biological relative. One particularly insidious sub-category of acquaintance offenders is “nice-guy” offenders (sometimes referred to as the “pillar of the community” or “man of the year” offenders).
These are offenders who are friendly, normal, helpful, giving, loving people who no one would suspect are harboring sexual attractions to children. These cases are very difficult to investigate because a number of these offenders have high social status or are authority figures, such as: “teachers, camp counselors, coaches, clergy members, law-enforcement officers, doctors, judges . . . . Such offenders are in a better position to seduce and manipulate victims and escape responsibility.” And, equally important, “[t]hey are usually believed when they deny any allegations.”2 Both their status in the community and their affable personalities make it difficult to make a case against them for sexual victimization of children. “Convicting an acquaintance child molester who is a ‘pillar of the community’ is almost impossible based only on the testimony of one confused 5-year-old girl or one delinquent adolescent boy.” 3
The above passages underscore the fact that even when it comes to trained law enforcement officers, it is very difficult to determine whether a person, who everyone in the community knows and respects, is a child sex offender. Sandusky is a textbook preferential child sex offender, as well as being a textbook example of a “nice-guy” offender. However, I would put him in the top one percent of effective groomers in this country. This is based on the fact that he was so bold in his high-profile “altruistic” public persona, founded a youth serving organization, and he was caught in the act of grooming and sexually assaulting children in the showers before, yet he still did the same thing in the same place again in 2001. 4 Both times Sandusky was able to deceive his way out of it. He built his reputation both professionally and interpersonally over many years of hard work and sacrifice. Drive, determination, selflessness and altruism were his calling cards. He motivated others to give millions to needy children at The Second Mile. Sandusky was lauded and celebrated for his work. He effectively groomed most of the people who came in contact with him, including child care experts, psychologists, professionals, celebrities, athletes, coaches, friends and family. And most notably, he was approved numerous times over thirty years as both a foster parent and an adoptive parent by child care professionals.
Footnotes: 2 Kenneth V. Lanning, Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis 77 (5th ed. 2010); 3 Id. at 140. 4 In my experience, because people do not want to talk about the topic of male on male child sexual victimization these types of “close calls” happen regularly with “nice-guy” offenders, but witnesses either do not believe what they see, do not know how to handle it, misinterpret what they see, or do not think anyone will believe them if they told.
* * * * *
As Clemente shows, Sandusky is as skilled a pedophile as he is a football coach. And remember, his game is defense! He fooled countless people. Among those, it’s not unimportant to note, are himself and his wife Dottie. We could of course say they are in denial in indefatigably professing Jerry’s innocence, and that would be true, but Matt Sandusky’s claim rings truer, Jerry tells himself it’s love.
* * * * *
Sandusky’s dramaturgical excellence and skills of persuasion don’t exonerate Joe Paterno and the other Penn State administrators. People have said to me: How can you still admire Joe Paterno if you think he’s culpable for not reporting Jerry to the authorities. My answer is simple: He made a big, big mistake, but he’s a man, not a God, and everything else we know about him, his actions, and his achievements, is great and exemplary. In there movie, I thought the muralist was right in painting out the gold halo over the coach’s head and replacing it with a rose.
Sociologists teach that the tendency to idealize exemplary role enactors and demonize serious rule breakers, transforming the former into a deity and the latter into a devil, is a way social systems function to enforce social control over their members. In other words, groups have deviant control sub-systems, ways of transforming previous valued conformists into beyond-the-pale deviants. We shouldn’t do that to Joe Paterno.
The flip side of the argument is that we shouldn’t do that to Jerry Sandusky either. Jerry probably helped a lot of people in his life, and did a lot of good. His son Matt admits that. But also, Matt says he doesn’t ever want to see Jerry again. I don’t either. Would it be better if we could see it in our hearts to still give Jerry his due?
* * * * *
There is an interesting young man, called Tyler Estright, featured in the film, a representative Penn State student and fan. He has come to Penn State expressly for the Happy Valley experience. He owns a framed portrait of Coach Paterno. Penn State memorabilia decorate his room. When the coach is fired, he pokes his picture out the window and shouts his support for the coach, receiving kudos from friends, family, and passersby alike.
His distaste and revulsion for most everything football after Paterno’s firing is palpable: the phoniness of a candlelight vigil for victims on Friday displacing the traditional pep rally; the next day’s game when a Nebraska assistant coach, a preacher too, gives a speech and leads a mass prayer as players from both teams huddle around him; the rapid transference of reverence and allegiance from Paterno to his successor, Bill O’Brien; and most of all, and unforgivably, O’brien’s decision to put player names on their jerseys, a sacrilege which he compares to a Christian’s replacing the cross with a substitute symbol. Estright speaks for many when he says that while he’s as sympathetic to Sandusky’s victims as anyone, he himself didn’t do anything wrong and the football players didn’t either. He is so disgusted with the hypocrisy and the sadness that he leaves the university.
Estright makes an important point. The team concept, the individual development model, the nameless jerseys, Paterno’s dedication to academics and Penn Sate Students (Joe’s “Go study” mantra), the college spirit, and the 85% graduate rate are what’s right at Penn State. Why would that be sacrificed?
* * * * *
I leave it to the reader to assess the lessons learned by particular individuals in the film. As to the “appropriate focus” standard, it’s evident that most people seen in the movie shift their focus from the actual victims of Sandusky’s sexual abuse, the nine known victims noted in the documentary, all ten or eleven year old little boys at the time of abuse, and turn their attention instead to the victimization of Paterno, his family, students, the football program, fans, Penn State, alumni, Penn Station, the community, and the state. Minimal attention is given to the plight of the victims, or to figuring out how it could have happened. The community’s neglect of the victims is similar to the neglect Penn State administrators are criticized for in the Presentment and Freeh Report.
The exception is Matt Sandusky, the one victim represented in the documentary. He gives a lucid, long-term account of what happened to him, why, and its costs. By his account alone the state and court system should wish to revisit its adoption policies, and The Second Mile should wish to conduct an autopsy of its organizational history before disbanding. Matt ends up losing both of his two families, his biological and his adopted families, and is subtlety blamed for that result. It’s amazing. No wonder other victims chose privacy. Nevertheless, Bar-Lev wants us to appreciate the irony, and he leaves Matt Sandusky to us as an admirable and hopeful figure.
* * * * *
At the very end of the movie, with the 2012 football season well under way and the team doing better than expected, Bar-Lev quotes Film professor Matt Jordan, one of the most perceptive commentators in the film:
We all want to think that we live in a better world than we do. It’s pretty easy when there is a big, shiny, loud spectacle. It’s like a conjurer’s trick. The rest of life is going on, but then we’re not paying attention.
Bar-Lev also uses this quotation to kick off the trailer for the documentary. Football wins. Spectacle wins. Inattention wins. Each in our own way, we store up impressive stores of energy to dissipate on our favorite spectacles. Football is a shared national passion, a serial display of dazzling spectacles from August to February. Bar-Lev seems to suggest that the football spectacle at Penn State carried with it an inattention to the activities of Jerry Sandusky.
How about happenings at other universities? Is the surge in sexual abuse cases on campus connected to the spectacle of big-time college sports? What realities are we not paying attention to when we lose ourselves in spectacular venues and shouting crowds? If mass spectacles are increasing, do we know less and less about what is really happening in the world? Is anyone paying attention?
Will Callender, Jr. ©
September 1, 2015
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