By any measure, the furor surrounding Jerry Sandusky is a public relations nightmare.
Sandusky gave his first interview last night about the controversy for NBC and he did not do himself any favors. The former defensive coach is accused of some pretty horrific acts against young boys, and the grand jury indictment report describes reported offenses against eight boys in very graphic ways. In the process of the current investigation, a long-time college president and beloved football coach from Penn State have been fired, and the original CEO of the nonprofit agency, at the center of this tragedy, The Second Mile. Both organizations are scrambling to distance themselves from the long trajectory of these events while trying to maintain public confidence in their institutions. It will not be easy. In another example of official distancing, mega-bookseller, Amazon now reports that the popular Sandusky biography with the now too-ironic title, Touched, is unavailable for purchase.
Reporter Sarah Ganem, who has written about this previous accusations against Sandusky, details in a recent article the long, circuitous route to a day when accusers would be taken serious. Like a highly contested football in a championship game, the questions and suspicions about Sandusky were tossed around from one set of hands to another. Only in this game, there will be no winners. And, one of the persistent questions is how could it have gone on so long?
Here’s a clue, taken from the Second Mile’s own website. When Sandusky founded The Second Mile, its stated goal expressed online was to provide children with “Help and Hope.” Over the years, Sandusky was celebrated as some kind of hero, and the accolades gained the most traction when describing his “charitable” work. The co-author of his biography, Kip Richeal, lauded Sandusky’s achievements for “ underprivileged” and “at-risk” children and recently admitted in an interview that “I want to believe it’s not true…the person I knew, I never ever saw anything like that.”
Many other journalists and commentators surround Sandusky with the rhetoric of super-humanity because of this work with this charity. But look at the faces of the children on the organization’s site.
While they may be representative, not actual photos, of youth this agency targeted, they speak volumes about why they were ignored, and why they are invisible still. They are young. Some are female. The codewords “underprivileged” and “at-risk” too often substitute for people of color and people of all racial backgrounds who are poor.
And what happens when a seemingly upright white guy like Sandusky comes along? He is given a virtually unlimited “pass” for his actions because anyone like him who willingly hangs around the likes of these forgotten children must be heroic. Because the reality of race in this country–still–is that if you are white and you don’t want to diversify your life socially, you don’t have to. Whiteness protects you, and defines you. Scholars Danielle Endres and Mary Gould describe this in more depth in an article about whiteness and service that cautions how those of us in the classroom might be unintentionally setting up environments that may be reinforcing the very differences we are trying to bridge.
I read the details of the Sandusky indictment and my stomach turned. I wondered how long his actions and behaviors would have gone unquestioned if his group of kids were labeled “gifted and talented,” or “middle-class,” or “leadership achievers” or other euphemisms we have for other children. I believe the Second Mile may have the right idea, but the wrong language. These children need access, along with “help” and “hope.” I have come to believe that good mentoring rests upon the quiet ways in which a person with “access” to a larger life can share these pathways, by example and demonstration, with children whose own views may be limited. Visiting a college campus, for instance, or having a home-cooked dinner instead of a drive-though burger, are among the things that I count as access.
Sandusky is accused of using his access to take advantage of children who were vulnerable and unaware because of the lack of pathways from their lives into broader worlds. I am waiting for the statement somewhere in his defense that goes something like…..”I may have made some mistakes, but look at how much good I have accomplished. What would have happened to these children without me?” What, indeed?
There will be many lessons to be learned from this tragic situation, but one of them has to be that we refrain the historic impulse to paint white intentions as good intentions without reasonable scrutiny. Good mentors, great social services, and strong families come in all colors. If we are all in the game, we can help hold each other accountable.
What other lessons do we need to learn from this tragedy? I hope you will share.