Proceed With Honor: A Way Forward for Penn State and the Catholic Church

An unidentified protester stands outside Beaver Stadium prior to the NCAA football game between Nebraska and Penn State last November. (CNS photo/Pat Little, Reuters)
Penn State was a place so honored and revered that it became known as Happy Valley. The entire university built up an image of unfaltering prestige and loyalty. “Success with honor” was the football program’s slogan. That image has been destroyed. The recent investigation into at least a decade of criminal behavior and covering it up has split the allegiances of many alumni.

As a sports fan with a Catholic upbringing, it’s hard for me not to compare the Penn State scandal to that of the Catholic Church over the past few decades. Both scandals involve the highest-ranking officials turning their heads and ignoring child sex abuse. Everyone involved reacted inadequately. It is baffling to me that the people with the power and opportunity to protect children in both situations actually did the one thing that would hurt children more. They covered it up.

The fans and the faithful

Although there are those who will stop going to games or wearing their Penn State gear, I am certain that the majority will continue to support the team as much as, if not more than, before the scandal. It’s interesting to me how quickly and fervently the Penn State community has come to the football program’s defense. When the sex abuse scandal broke in the Church the majority spoke out just as quickly, but fervently against the Church. Is commitment to fandom that much stronger than commitment or support of the faithful? I think we already know the answer: Yes.

Being a fan, especially a sports fan, is part of one’s identity. We build many of our social experiences around our mutual fandom. What’s your favorite this or favorite that? Who are you pulling for in the epic duel of Team A vs. Team B? You get the gist. Faith is a part of our identity and social circles, too, but for most people faith is a one-hour, one-day-a-week commitment. It’s much easier for people to walk away from something that they barely spend any time on. When the Church scandal broke, it was easy for people to cut that hour out of their lives, but if they had to cut their favorite sports team out of their lives, that’s nearly impossible. Right? We make plans months or years in advance to go see a game or plan our evenings around the TV lineup. Yet it can be difficult for some to peel themselves away for one hour once a week to drive 10 minutes to church. It is this realization about America’s commitment to fandom that reveals the real reason behind how something like the Penn State cover up can happen.

Need for change

Penn State has to answer to the NCAA, which took decisive action in the last few weeks. I originally thought that the NCAA didn’t do enough, but I am beginning to realize that it is actually Penn State that is not doing enough. Their new football coach encouraged fans to renew their season tickets: “I would tell them to move forward, turn the page. I would tell them we’ve got a football team that’s working extremely hard for this upcoming season.” I’m sorry coach, but you missed the point.

It is not up to the fans to move on from this scandal or support the football team or Penn State in general. It’s not up to the sponsors to drop or continue to support Penn State with their advertising. It’s up to Penn State to pause, look around, and determine how this was allowed to happen, and lead the way in the healing process. I for one am tired of seeing institutions and individuals commit glaring atrocities and expect to be forgiven the moment they apologize.

No doubt, the Bishops and Cardinals had the same concern about parishioners filling pews after the Church’s sex abuse scandal broke. As was the case then, the real concern should be to learn from the mistakes that made people question their faith or fandom. The Church didn’t really blaze a trail for Penn State. The Church itself failed to recall people, young and old, back to the faith and pushed many believers away with the handling of its own scandal. Many who left have stayed away and wonder if they would be welcomed back if they were to return. Others, however, are staying away because they believe the Church has not changed. I myself am skeptical that the Church is doing what is necessary to fix the problems and present a changed community that would be welcoming to those who have left.

Maybe we need to change college sports and Church culture. Maybe it’s time for Penn State to stop worrying about season ticket sales, for the Church to stop worrying only about parishioners in pews. I would like to see parishes all over the country holding community events that could serve as a way for all those still skeptical to return to a sort of halfway faith house. A space where they can dip their toes back into the faith, if you will. These events would be the perfect way for the Church to welcome people back and say, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”

Penn State: Don’t just take away the statue of Joe Paterno and forget it was ever there. Replace it with another statue that explains why it’s gone and what will happen in the future to make sure these things are never allowed to take place again.

It’s time to redefine what it means to succeed with honor.