In the child’s eyes, there is no way the coach could be wrong. It may feel awkward, and it may drum up fear and sadness, but it is virtually impossible for a child to see a scenario in which his coach is wrong. It is easier and, to the child at least, it makes more sense to conform to the expectations of the larger-than-life coach.
The brotherhood of team sports is perhaps the most appealing aspect of it. Almost ganglike in its initiation rites, a child learns that his chances of survival among his peers depend upon his willingness to put himself aside for the sake of the team. It is one of the earliest lessons of team sports. Charismatic coaches form a trust with their players that stretch and overlap into parental paradigms that become impossible for a young boy to navigate when something goes awry.
The tragedies of betraying this trust are not the futures of institutions and teams. Rather, the consequence visited upon the child victims is a lifelong, firmly entrenched, blurring of the lines between proper, healthy relationships, and destructive, dysfunctional, and deadly ones. These are the real tragedies.
The institutional failure of Penn State is not just the child sexual abuse itself since it occurs everywhere from churches to other boys organizations. The failure of Penn State is its institutional tolerance of secrecy, hero worship, and its perpetration of the myth that says athletic success, when wrapped in terms like “honor” and “community,” becomes the narcissistic image in which it believes and upon which it acts every day. The shroud of secrecy becomes a matter, not of mere cover-up, but of institutional life, dysfunctional as it is.
What went wrong at Penn State was the fear of telling the emperor he had no clothes.
Penn State is not unusual in its culture; secrecy and dysfunction accompany most major colleges, I would think. Unfortunately, Penn State had at least one monster in its midst and rather than exposing his deeds and the horror that haunted the campus, administrators and university police enabled the monster, catered to him, and protected him from the judgment of truthful exposure. Thinking it was protecting itself, Penn State destroyed its carefully wrought public image.