Friday, November 11, 2011

Unhappy Valley: raw thoughts from a Big Ten alum and mom

The child sex abuse scandal rocking Penn State and Happy Valley this week hits home on many levels - as a mother of young boys, as a Big Ten alumnus raised in the Midwest, as a former university communications director.

Even though one man, Jerry Sandusky, stands accused of the sexual assault charges, along the way, too many people looked the other way or stayed silent. The situation is a web of complex relationships. It is about influential men taking advantage of voiceless boys. It is about a large college football program protecting its assets. It is about power, money, hypocrisy and secrecy. It is outrageous, shameful, disgusting, unforgivable. 

As a mother of two young children, it breaks my heart to learn that the boys who were assaulted had no advocates fighting for them. Reading the Grand Jury report took my breath away as I learned the ages of the boys involved - too close.

When I sat down to begin writing this post, I did so as my older son, a fourth-grader, attended his weekly Cub Scout den meeting. New to scouting this year, my husband and I were surprised to open the Boy Scouts of America handbook and find that it begins with a 24-page pull-out booklet entitled "How to Protect Your Children From Child Abuse: A Parent's Guide". It was important to discuss this topic with our son, but initiating that first conversation was difficult. The hardest part was answering his questions: "But why would anyone want to hurt me like that? Why would someone I trust do that?" 

I look at my two boys, both growing and developing every day, and still see them as babies. The other day, I noticed, with alarm, that my older son smelled like a teenager and was showing the faintest shadow of a mustache (I guess his father's Italian genes are kicking in). Already? How could this be? My younger son, now four years old, somehow seems frozen in my mind as a two-year-old. I carry and cuddle him even though he is perfectly capable of running around on his own. I obsess over the banal details of their lives - meal preparation, homework assignments, play dates. I overshare details of our middle-class, suburban life on this blog.

In contrast, the boys who were abused generally came from disadvantaged backgrounds and unstable households. This adds another layer of injustice to the situation to see that some sick, but privileged man, preyed on these children who had so little. Somehow, it reminded me of Cleveland's Imperial Avenue murders that took place for years without anyone noticing or caring enough to investigate. Whether it is impoverished boys or drug-addicted women, our society allowed monsters to prey on our most vulnerable. 

In the Penn State case, the abuse took place in places that are essentially off-limits to mothers: men's locker rooms, showers, wrestling mats. In reading the Grand Jury report, I was particularly struck by the way one woman learned how her child was violated. She asked her son, who had just returned from a outing with Sandusky, why his hair was wet. She found out that her child showered with this predator. That detail - so visual, so concrete - stings as I contrast it with the thousands of times I've nagged my fourth-grader: Get in the shower! Use soap! Wash your hair! Brush your teeth! 

Beyond my reaction as a mom, I've also been thinking about the situation as a Big Ten alumnus raised in the Midwest. Much of the news coverage of this sordid story came from sportswriters. My own first response, when I heard the initial reports, concerned legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. "No way," I exclaimed. "Not JoePa!" I believed that Paterno had nothing to do with the abuse, and I was deeply disappointed to learn that he did know something and didn't do enough. For some reason, like many others, I confused success on the field with integrity off the field. If he's a good coach, he must be a good person, right?

We want to believe in heroes. When it comes to professional sports, we want our athletes to shine and when they do, we love them, we worship them. Growing up in Ohio as a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan, I know all too well the agony and the ecstasy of winning and losing (well, mostly losing). Most Clevelanders I know are sports historians who can recite our most ignominious sports moments (The Drive, The Fumble and The Decision, to name a few) like the letters in the alphabet. 

Football, I think, has the deepest hold on us, though. When I went to graduate school at Ohio State University, I was already a huge sports fan but I was unprepared for the overwhelming Big Ten football culture that surrounded me. I was stunned when my classmates convinced a sociology professor to rearrange the syllabus: "We can't have a test that Monday - it's Michigan weekend!" On Saturday afternoons in October, I sometimes headed to the main library, knowing it would be all mine, practically empty. And then there were the games against That Team Up North. Win or lose, those were the nights it was best to stay inside, away from the drunks, tear gas, overturned cars.

Recently, OSU President Gordon Gee was asked if he was considering firing then-football coach Jim Tressel. His notorious response: "I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me." Big Ten football = Big Money

The other part about this Penn State scandal that has been nagging at me is the crisis communications aspect. For eight years, up until this past June, I worked at Case Western Reserve University in marketing and communications. As a former media relations director, I thought about what the Penn State communications team must be dealing with: talking points, prepared statements, a torrent of media inquiries. There would be worry about protecting the Penn State brand, implications on student recruitment, fundraising. I hope that through it all there was concern about the victims.

In the media frenzy surrounding this story, the former journalist in me was curious about the details involved in the case. As I learned more, though, I wished I could unlearn it. Presumably, more information will come to light in the next several weeks.  But I don't think I want to know any more.


Brenna said...

I thought of you also, Lisa, and just as I've had that "what would the lawyers do?" reaction mixed in with all the other human reactions, I've thought you must be on some level putting yourself into University Marketing mode. I also wonder to what extent the fact that these victims were boys, and boys victimized through their attachment to sports, has driven some of the sports-network based reaction that I've been reading and watching.

Karna Converse said...

Hi Lisa. I love your succinct, thoughtful, mom/communications director take on this issue. I'm at lifelong Nebraska Cornhusker even though I now live in Iowa -- I love it but also recognize the crazy hold college football has on its constituents.

janet said...

I've been thinking a lot about this too, for many of the same reason, Lisa. When I saw the students protesting and turning over that TV truck, I wondered who in their lives would challenge them about their misplaced outrage.

Lisa said...

Thanks for your comments, Brenna, Karna and Janet. This story has really gripped me and each time I think about it, I can scarcely breathe, let alone speak. It's hard to articulate all the thoughts and feelings that I have about it all. How have you been dealing with it?