Penn State University - Too BIG to Tell

Here is an obvious question, why didn’t anyone call the police? Was the desire to maintain a Big Ten Football legacy so strong that children were allowed to be victimized?  What was the culture at Penn State University, where it allowed coaches and staff to think it was acceptable to pass the buck and turn a blind eye to child abuse?  Where students rioted on campus, but not because they are outraged for the victimization of young children, but because their beloved Coach Joe Paterno was fired.  

I find the duality of the Penn State’s football program quite ironic. Outwardly, there is a quest for football excellence, yet go deeper and find the ignoring and hiding of horrific crimes against minors and the protection for a predator. The layers of inexcusable behaviors are numerous and it all begins with Jerry Sandusky.  He satisfied his sexual desires by preying on young boys for many years. He destroyed their lives for his deviant satisfaction. It is just as appalling the lack of action from both a janitor and a grad-assistant that witnessed Sandusky doing unspeakable acts with boys. A janitor saw Sandusky in the shower with a child. A grad-assistant walked in on Sandusky raping a child.  Neither called the police. At some point Joe Paterno received this information and he casually passed it along. Arguably “Joe Pa”, the most powerful person on Penn State’s campus never followed-up on what was told to him.  Did he just see Sandusky on the football field and pretend not to know? Did he toss the thought out of his mind and went on with the business of winning football games? By doing nothing, Paterno sent the message to Sandusky that Penn State University was a safe place to be a sexual predator.  Also, Paterno’s inactions conveyed to the other coaches and staff that not reporting Sandusky to the police was acceptable. 
Looking at Penn State’s Football Program from a system theory perspective according to Warren (1978) a social system is a structural organization of the interaction of parts that endures over time, i.e. a family structure, a community and organizations… a social system must establish and maintain boundaries in order to survive; when their boundaries become blurred, social systems become less viable. Often football teams describe themselves as a family and function much like a family structure.  In this case, Penn State's Football Program functioned as a family that was dysfunctional and Joe Paterno was its paternal figurehead. In this family system it functioned closed; whereas it isolated itself from its environment and was highly resistant to influences from outside forces.  This football program wanted to play by its own rules no matter what the cost. In addition, the staff that witnessed these crimes suffered from “bystander apathy” the unwillingness to do the right thing. This was the perfect environment for a person in power within this type of structure to prey and abuse the helpless and at the same time be celebrated as a great coach and leader. 
 Finally, the silence was broken for the victims, but the road ahead is a difficult one.  Research shows that sexual abuse victims recover the best with family support along with psychotherapy and I would also add prayer . I hope the social workers and other mental health professionals are in their rightful place to provide the needed support for the children and their families.
Penn State University has the task of looking inward to begin the course of corrective action with its football program and campus as a whole. The firing and placing staff on administration leave is just a small step. A fundamental cultural shift must occur on the campus. No longer can a sports program be allowed to operate in isolation to abandon its moral responsibilities when it is convenient. Nor can they place people on pedestals and then ignore their wrongdoings. The pursuit for environmental change should include an open and honest dialog, a task-centered approach and staff accountability. There is a need for intensive training for Penn State's Football coaches and staff on the proper protocols with children on campus, i.e. mandating reporting, how to report abuse, working with at risk children, adult roles & boundaries with children and what sexual abuse is.  Putting these recommendations in place is the start of building a new Penn State.

I have included the following links of the Grand Jury Report and the Scandal Timeline.

All the best, 
Natalie Graves, A.M. 
"The Other Coach”

Jerry Sandusky arrested: Grand jury report - The Washington Post

College football: Penn State scandal timeline -


  1. The whole affair is shocking and disgusting - anyone who knew/discovered this, and did not make a swift, decisive, action to protect the children involved, as well as those to come, is an amoral, disgusting human being. Losing their job should be the minimum punishment. We all know that college sports is corrupt, but now that children have been harmed, I pray for a full-fledged investigation of the entire system. It is a shame that coaches have the most power on campus, and they get so drunk on their power that they think they are above the law and human decency. Do you think there is hope for change?

    Great post, keep it coming!

  2. Hi Shena,
    I'm glad you enjoyed the post. We know change is very difficult and even more so for established organizations that are accustomed to doing things the “good ole boys” way. In the case of Penn State University change will come, if not only from the result of the lost of funders, sponsors and donors. My hope is that sports programs everywhere take note of what happen here and begin to embrace the greater call to keep children safe which includes reporting crimes to the police, not matter who commits them.

  3. My feeling from being connected into the educational system for years as both a student and a teacher in Psychology on a college level is that this incident is just too big to sweep under the rug. Some human relations guidelines, checks and balances, even some psychometrics for those entering the field in Sports Education will undoubtedly become the standard for accountability. Even so, no mater how hard we try to perfect the educational system so that incidents like this one at Penn State do not happen to our youth, the real safety net is in the fabric of who we are as people, as a culture and where our values lie. No one wants to stand up and speak out if it means they might lose a job or position because they speak against someone in power. But even though we don't want to, we must if we know something horrible is happening and we are the witness. We stand against our own human nature if we do not speak up against the harm of the innocent.

    Thank you for starting this post and bringing some attention to this incident. I found you on Linkin's "Links for Shrinks". Would love it if you would comment on my blog as I have a question posed that you might be able to help us with.

  4. Natalie, I appreciate your insight into this tragic situation from the perspective of a social worker. For many people, sports plays a large role in their lives and it is intrinsically linked to their social interaction and self-worth.

    I look forward to future posts and more insightful discussions on this topic.

  5. One day in your private practice you will likely be faced with a pedophile wanting help. That is a major challenge to a social worker's values. Since I work a lot with adults who were sexually abused when they were children I used to dread the day I'd be challenged with counselling a pervert.

    What happened was that my initial revulsion became tempered by the client's vulnerability. In fact, my anger melted somewhat and I had instead, to control my pity.

    Graduate School of Social Work never prepared me for this maelstrom of
    feelings -- I hope your training will have been more useful.

    Outside of the therapy room I remain disgusted and angry and see nothing wrong with punishing pedophiles. The harm they cause is incalculable.

    Fortunately we have therapeutic techniques, especially hypnotherapy, that can significantly help the survivors.


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