Even if you have no interest in college sports, you've likely heard about what has been happening at Penn State this week, relative to their athletics department and beloved head football coach, Joe Paterno (even my wife, who is so uninterested in sports that she can walk into our living room on Super Bowl Sunday while I'm watching the game and ask in all sincerity "Is this an important game?" asked me what I thought of the Paterno incident last night).
It is undoubtedly a sad and disturbing story. But, as much as I respect Joe Paterno for what he has done in college athletics, for Penn State University, and for individual athletes whom he has coached and mentored, I am not really all that sad for him. The real tragedy is what happened to eight young boys at the hands of someone who they trusted. What's more the riots and protests which have erupted in response to Paterno's firing are not only misguided (and, I suspect for most rioters, an excuse for drunken violence and a tempting opportunity to gather videos that can be posted to You Tube and bragged about later), but draw attention away from the real victims in the situation.
Let me be clear, I am not arguing against public demonstrations and the right for individuals to express their views. And, I am an advocate for college students becoming engaged on their campuses and making their voice heard. However, violence, property destruction, and public intoxication are not civic engagement. And, based on what I have seen and heard from the Penn State "demonstrations" thus far, they look a lot like a bunch of college students wanting to cause trouble, rather than informed citizens working for positive change. In the Inside Higher Ed article linked to above, a number of student affairs professionals "sympathized" with students who are going through the "healing process." While I'm sure that there are students distraught, embarrassed, and discouraged with what is happening on their campus and student affairs professionals are positioned to provide support, I would hope that efforts are taken to help students step back and, again, consider who the real victims are in all of this. While some well-intentioned Paterno-ites surely believed that their protests at his firing would convey messages of support for a campus icon, they likely never considered what kinds of messages such behavior send to, not only the victims in this particular case, but any victim of sexual abuse watching all of this play out. I hope Penn State takes this as an opportunity to help students move past what seems to be very selfish behavior and take a more mature and productive approach to the tragedy that is unfolding on their campus.