Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Penn State, Joe Paterno and Communal Responsibility

There has been no bigger story in sports this year than the Penn State scandal involving Jerry Sandusky’s repeated sexual abuse of young boys for the past two decades.

With Sandusky behind bars for the rest of his life, the eyes of the nation continued to look to Penn State, as the question still remains – how could this happen? Tasked with finding the answer, Louis Freeh, the former federal judge and director of the F.B.I. spent the last seven months interviewing hundreds of people at the university and, this past week, released his findings. According to the report, Penn State officials, including legendary coach Joe Paterno, the former president of Penn State, Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and others, “repeatedly concealed critical facts" about Jerry Sandusky’s crimes from authorities and failed to act in a responsible manner that may have spared additional children from his monstrous assaults.

In addition, and perhaps most damningly, the report claims that the individuals who knew about Sandusky’s abuse of children showed no empathy for the victims, but rather, were concerned about how devastating the revelations would be to university, and, more importantly, the football program.

In light of Mr. Freeh’s findings, there have been calls for Penn State itself to suffer the consequences of their non-action. Additional criminal and civil charges may be forthcoming due to Penn State’s apparent complicity in this matter. There have been discussions about whether or not Joe Paterno’s statue which stands outside Beaver Stadium should be removed. But the most severe punishment being contemplated is banning Penn State from collegiate football, what is known as the “death penalty” for the university’s football program. To punish Penn State for the institutional cover-up of the heinous crimes committed against children, their football team, the Nittany Lions, would be no more - for a year, five years, maybe indefinitely.

There has been much handwringing about this option, as its opponents decry it as “collective punishment.” Clearly, if Penn State is barred from playing football for any amount of time, it will have a negative effect on individuals who had nothing to do with Sandusky’s actions. Let’s face it – without football and the money it generates for the school, the university will suffer greatly. But if we look at the teachings of our prophets, we see there is precedence for such an action.

While, generally speaking, Judaism holds the sinner and the sinner alone for his or her actions, the prophets understood that the sins of individuals had grave consequences for the community at large. They preached that if Israel did not repent for its transgressions, God would inflict a harsh punishment on the entire community, the innocent and the guilty. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Micah all declared that for the sins of injustice, greed, and idolatry, to name a few, the Israelites would be exiled from their land and subjugated to a foreign power. And, sure enough, when the people did not listen, the entire community, not just the guilty, suffered this very fate. All are held accountable. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

If a harsh penalty is the only way to get the message across to Penn State and other universities who might think about letting something so horrible go by unreported, then so be it. Because no matter what happens with Penn State’s football team next year, no matter what happens with a bronze statue, no matter what happens to the people responsible for this odious conspiracy to conceal the truth, we must remember who the true victims are – the children abandoned by an uncaring community more concerned with football than justice.

Rabbi Josh Lobel is Associate Rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash, a Reform synagogue in Los Gatos, California. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJLobel.