The accusations flying around about Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky are horrifying and upsetting. I think most people would agree that there is pretty much nothing more heinous than the violation of sexual assault on a child (or anyone, really, but to do that to a child is particularly reprehensible). The whole story is so unbelievably sordid – it’s like a watching a movie, and it’s no big surprise that the media have attached themselves to it.
Today I caught this article on the Huffington Post about similar accusations against a Syracuse University basketball coach. This may seem contrary to what I just wrote, but it actually made me feel a bit concerned. In the article, Jim Bonheim claims that the accusations against Bernie Fine were fully investigated back in 2005 when they were first made, and were determined to be “unfounded.” Now, there are only a handful of people on earth who know what really, truly happened here. But what if those claims were completely unfounded? And Fine didn’t do anything wrong? And the alleged victims, seeing an opportunity in the media, decided to bring this back up knowing it would get a lot of attention?
We live in a society that is generally sympathetic toward the underdog or the victim. That makes sense on a lot of levels, but I think we get carried away sometimes with people who claim to be victims – and the media doesn’t help this. These stories have a very obvious “bad guy,” someone to root against. In the case of Penn State, it becomes even more sensationalized because of Joe Paterno’s fame and the supposed conspiracy of a large organization covering up something terrible. The notion of “innocent until proven guilty” goes out the window when we’re talking about a crime this egregious. And, while the visual that comes to mind when I hear about Sandusky raping a 10-year old boy in the shower makes me, literally, sick to my stomach, I fear that emotions get the better of people until a certain hysteria takes hold, and then all of a sudden any coach who has ever slapped someone on the back is getting accused of inappropriate touching. I have no interest or desire in defending a pedophile, but I strongly feel that, accusations of this magnitude should be weighed and taken very seriously, with a grain of salt if necessary. Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, nothing can be taken at face value.
I say all of this because, when I was in college, several oft the guys in my circle of friends played on the hockey team. We were the champions of our division (D3, but it meant a lot to us), so the players were a bit of the jock-celebrities on campus. One night, in one of their dorm apartments, they partied with a girl who lived near them. Debauchery ensued, and the next day, she went to the police and claimed that five of the players had raped her. Cue a media firestorm and lots of court time for our friends. It was awful. We were outraged, because we were all good friends with these guys – and some of us had actually dated a few of them. We found it hard to believe that any of this was true. The alleged victim was a recovering alcoholic who had claimed she had been raped several times before. However, her rights were fully protected, so none of that ever came out in the news. From what we could gather, she got completely wasted with them, put on some sort of strip show, and then had sex with one of the guys. It was our belief at the time that she pointed her remorse outward and put the blame on others. However, there were only a small group of us at the school who were abreast of all of these details. The local media (and even CNN) reported the story and made these guys look like monsters. They further sensationalized it by constantly referring to them as “championship hockey players,” so their supposed fall from grace seemed even more pathetic. I can’t count the number of emails or phone calls I got from friends and family asking, “You don’t know those guys, do you?” It was so upsetting that someone so ill-intentioned could have such a negative and lasting effect on people who were innocent of any wrongdoing. Ultimately, the case was dismissed for a ridiculous lack of evidence. The media never ran that follow up. One of the guys left school after that. In one fell swoop, this woman ruined peoples’ lives. No one ever even knew her name.
With all of these awful events and epic media coverage, I would always encourage people to read between the lines and discern fact from hysteria. It’s easy to get carried away in the tidal wave of outrage, but things are not always what they seem, and they are certainly not always fairly portrayed in the news.