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Fame, power and the Jerry Sandusky scandal

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the Jerry Sandusky trial and Friday’s verdict: guilty on 45 out of 48 counts in the sex abuse case. While this does not make everything magically better for the victims, hopefully the verdict provides at least some comfort that justice was finally done — assuming you consider 442 years in prison for a 68-year-old man that inflicted unthinkable harm on so many children justice.

In aftermath of the verdict, one of the things that we need to do is examine how the system broke down at Penn State and how we can prevent something like this from happening in the future. Consider this article from John Ziegler, a friend of mine: “Things Most People Still Don’t ‘Get’ About the Jerry Sandusky Scandal.” It’s relevant to us as young, legal professionals because many of us will end up representing people who are viewed less-than-favorably by the public.

While it could be argued that a lawyer’s job is only to represent these people in a courtroom, I like to think that most lawyers would also want to understand these complicated and nuanced situations and how they are presented to the general public in order to prevent future tragedies.

It is interesting the case has captured the public’s interest in such a singular way. I think a lot of media coverage has unfairly cast blame members of the Penn State community (namely the late Joe Paterno) in a way that is unhelpful in preventing future abuse.

Why is this kind outcry unhelpful? Because it again bolsters fame as some kind of power to be reckoned with. No doubt fame was used by Sandusky over his victims and is a reason the abuse was able to go on for so long. And some people strongly contend that fame (and assumed power) should have been used by Paterno to expose Sandusky.

In our culture, we like to believe that fame equals power and therefore blame is often placed on the most visible person in a controversy regardless of the logic behind doing so. But let’s look at some of Ziegler’s points:

1. Paterno only heard one report about inappropriate conduct by Sandusky and the report was not substantiated at trial
2. Paterno went to the police and reported this
3. Paterno went to his superior and reported this

Yes, this is a tragedy and yes, it’s possible that Joe Paterno could have done more, told more people, talked to Sandusky, etc, etc, etc. But demonizing the man is not helping anything and draws attention away from the bigger issue: that there needs to be a better system in place to report these crimes and that here, the  system failed at multiple levels and many people failed to do anything.

We can’t just call a demon anyone who could have possibly had knowledge about it, who maybe could’ve intervened or who knew anyone who knew Sandusky because they didn’t stop it themselves. There are obviously much more complicated dynamics here that need to be understood. In fact, it can be argued that this kind of mentality and the refusal to address the fundamental breakdown in this system (a breakdown that could terrifyingly happen anywhere) is something that could have contributed to the delay in uncovering this horrible situation.

I understand the rage that everyone has felt regarding this incident and I feel it too. But I just hope that the nature of the crimes and famous names involved do not blind us so badly as to prevent us from really examining where the real vulnerabilities in our reporting systems lie.


  1. It’s not clear exactly what you’re saying. You talk about preventing crimes of this sort in the future but don’t describe ways in which this could be done. (Ironically, you criticize the only actual prevention method you describe – requiring people in a position to know to have a little more courage and speak up early in the process.) Your discussion of “fame” as “a power to be reckoned with” is just confusing. You probably have something like “position of authority,” or “inside knowledge,” in mind, rather than “fame,” when you discuss the conditions under which one would have an obligation to act to prevent or correct something like Sandusky’s abuses. If Bill Gates lived in State College, for example, but didn’t know anything about Sandusky’s actions, presumably Gates would have no obligations with respect to the case, one way or another. Paterno had an obligation to do more because of his position and what he knew, not because he was famous. The “fame” discussion comes across as an apology for Paterno, and perhaps the Penn State administration, more than a discussion of a principle for analyzing the case. (If you truly believe Paterno, Schultz, and the rest of the crowd didn’t have a pretty good idea of what was going on, your are more naive than one would expect, even in a young lawyer.)

    You seem to think that it is possible to construct a social system in which horrors of this sort are just taken care of by anonymous systems, institutions, and forces of nature, rather than the behavior of individuals acting on principle; a society in which there is responsiveness without responsibility, and community without citizenship, and in which harm is prevented without anyone having to do it. There is no such world, nor any exogenous fairness mechanism ready to compensate for the failings of people unwilling to act responsibly in such situations. Penn State was a failure of individuals on a massive scale and the law can do very little to compensate for that failure after the fact, though it might be able to deliver a message that will have some effect for the immediate future. Something like this will happen again, however, (no doubt it’s happening right now), because there are lots of people like you out there who think “out of sight, out of mind” is an appropriate response to it. Are you a Penn State grad? If so, don’t feel bad about it. This could have happened anywhere.

  2. More damning than the evidence against Mr. Sandusky is the evidence of his attorney’s unprofessionalism in the aftermath of the trial. Sandusky discussed conversations he had with his client and praised both the bench and the prosecutors for their professionalism, arguably breaching privilege and damaging his client’s appellate posture/post-conviction posture.

  3. @BruceGodfrey thanks for bringing that up! I think it will be interesting to see what happens with his attorney’s actions and his case.

  4. @Pushkin “Something like this will happen again, however, (no doubt it’s happening right now), because there are lots of people like you out there who think “out of sight, out of mind” is an appropriate response to it. Are you a Penn State grad? If so, don’t feel bad about it. This could have happened anywhere.”

    Children are being abused because of people like me? Not that it needs to be said but that’s a pretty horrible accusation to make. The point of my post was to draw attention to ways we could help kids and to NOT sweep things under the rug. I was trying to say that it’s important not to let fame and visceral knee-jerk reactions overshadow the fact that we need to examine more closely why this happened. You’re right that I didn’t offer a solution, I certainly don’t have one. I am hoping to bring to light the importance of the work that still needs to be done.

  5. Godfrey, I 100% agree with you regarding Sandusky’s attorney. As a defense attorney, I was sickened to watch his press conference explaing not only their conversations, but also the attorney essentially trying to take himself off the hook by noting that he told everyone it was an uphill battle, they asked for a continuance, etc. The worst part was his statement that they received so much discovery they were not able to get through all of it and were playing catchup the whole trial (who says that, smh).
    Ms. Kehl, while Sandusky could receive UP TO 442 years, he has not been sentenced to that yet, so it may be a little premature to ask whether people consider that justice for a 68 year old man.

  6. @Jason Rodriguez I wasn’t asking anyone whether they thought the sentence or potential sentence was justice, just trying to say that no sentence can ever make the victims whole and trying to convey sympathy toward the victims. I was not trying to make a literal endorsement or criticism of Sandusky’s jail time, I think that is a whole other topic.

  7. I know this is an old post, but my friend just posted this article that is relevant to the topic. The article is here:

    It’s Bob Costas’ revised take on the scandal. In it there is a quote that he says which illustrates (much more eloquently than I could) a very good point about the subject:

    “You know what I think some of this comes down to? At least now, people are so repulsed by what Sandusky did and so startled that somebody, somehow, didn’t observe it, figure it out, and stop him, that they think that anything short of a blanket condemnation of everybody there somehow translated into you being insufficiently concerned about the victims, and insufficiently outraged by Sandusky’s behavior. So no shades of grey in degrees of culpability are permitted — the only way that you can spread your righteous indignation is to say damn them all. And that may be understandable, but it may not be fair.”