August 15, 2011 — When LeBron James was still dunking basketballs for the Cavaliers, a billboard overlooking Ontario Street in downtown Cleveland bore the dictum: We Are All Witnesses. The Nike-sponsored advertisement bore a larger-than-life photograph of hoops’ young king, arms spread wide and gaze fixed toward the heavens. The image vividly evoked the spiritual side of sport, the otherworldly enchantment brought on by feats of superhuman athleticism, and the good fortune we all have to sit back and watch.
A few hours down Interstate-80 in State College, Pennsylvania, the child rape tragedy and cover-up that has, at least temporarily, submerged the Penn State football program created witnesses of another kind.
Last November, as national media began reporting on the horrific crimes against children committed by former Nittany Lion assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the sickening details were met with a wholly justifiable anger. How could someone do this? And perhaps because our collective response to the actions of a serial child rapist congealed with a moral clarity that risked turning comment in to redundancy, we lasered our cultural outrage to the inaction of those who apparently bore witness to the crimes. How could they let this happen? We demanded an explanation from head coach Joe Paterno, University President Graham Spanier and others who, at many moments, had reason to believe something awful was happening on their watch, in their figurative house. How could someone witness something so clearly wrong and do nothing?
Since the initial weeks after the tragedies became public, we’ve seen the passing of Paterno, the closing of an open-and-shut case won against Sandusky, and the completion of the Freeh Report, which holds Paterno and Spanier, as well as administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, guilty of “repeatedly concealing critical facts” about Sandusky’s crimes.
And so for many, while the rage and disappointment inspired by the crimes remain, the recent sanctions from the NCAA might bring a little closure, because the bad guys are on notice, the hammer has been dropped and this will never happen again. But if we really want to do everything in our power to ensure the Penn State nightmare doesn’t recur at another institution, there’s one place we cannot forget to look for answers: in the mirror. Because we were witnesses, too.
We were witnesses when Penn State allowed Anwar Phillips to play in the Capital One Bowl after being accused of sexually assaulting a woman, and Spanier called the incident a “miscommunication.” What did we say? We were witnesses when Paterno made comments in 2006 expressing sympathy for Florida State linebacker A.J. Nicholson, and making a joke of the rape charges against him. What did we do? We were witnesses as, between 2002 and 2008, 46 different Penn State players were charged with over 150 crimes against their community. How could we let this happen and say nothing?
None of these events were secrets, brushed under the carpet like Sandusky’s crimes. They were all public knowledge, widely reported antidotes to the media tonic that Penn State was college football’s model program and Joe Paterno its patron saint. So what did we do about it?
And what, while we’re asking tough questions, have we done about the rest of college sports, where, according to one study, male athletes make up 3 percent of the student population but account for 19 percent of the sexual assaults reported to campus authorities? What have we done about professional basketball, where four out of ten NBA players has an arrest record involving a serious crime, or the NFL, where you’ll get your character ripped if you make a mental mistake on the field, but can count on being vigorously defended by many if accused of rape in the offseason? What we have done about our culture at large, wherein a study released in December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention informs us that 1.3 million American women are still victims of rape or attempted rape each year?
What have we done? How could someone witness something so clearly wrong and do nothing?
Let us be clear: college athletes are not the source of every danger facing our schools. Far from it, infact. There are many athletes on campuses all over America joining the fight against violence, and big time sports are not the only institutions capable of intimidating possible bystanders in to inaction. But as another fall football season begins in earnest, the events in State College do serve as an opportunity to use big time sports to examine our relationship to any cherished institution where the power granted by our passivity may invite caretakers of the institution to pursue preservation at the expense of justice.
The Nike ad no longer hangs in downtown Cleveland. It was torn down when LeBron left the Cavaliers in the summer of 2010 to play with the Miami Heat. And yet the image remains representative of a sporting culture that hopes we, as fans, will keep our mouths shut and consider how lucky we are to be able to watch the great ones do whatever it is they do, consequences be damned, and to just be happy that we’ve got a seat.
But we must be better than that. We must draw a clearer line between being passionate fans and passive witnesses. Because when we abdicate our responsibilities as citizens in order to preserve athletics’ unquestioned place, free from oversight, at the top of our institutions and our culture, we’re not just asking for another Penn State, we are guaranteeing it.
We cannot afford to be witnesses, whether we are rooting on our favorite team, participating in our campus communities or just being citizens of the world. We have to examine our own actions and ensure that we are never the passive witnesses that injustice demands. We must push ourselves out of the comfortable witness chair and in to the arena.
Because if we don’t, the Penn State story will ultimately contain two tragedies. The first, which is now unchangeable, is that many, many human beings have been violated by the horrifying actions of one individual. The second, which is still within our control, would be if use so much breath screaming at Paterno, Curley, Schultz and Spanier for answers that we are unable to find the voice to ask difficult questions of ourselves.
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