Former Nittany Lions basketball star John Amaechi reflects on meeting Jerry Sandusky, working with The Second Mile, and what must change about college sports.
When I took my official visit to Penn State, the basketball coaches and academic advisers immediately got the measure of me, and one of the first facets of Penn State I was made aware of was The Second Mile. I fell in love with Penn State from that first day on campus.
Lauded in my visit as part opportunity, part obligation of my future "star-status," The Second Mile was presented as a chance to "give back" while learning how to wield the burgeoning fame that came with being a sports star on Penn State’s campus. As I arrived on campus to stay, I was introduced to Jerry Sandusky and The Second Mile, an induction along with athletes from a variety of sports across campus that told us about our responsibility as larger-than-life figures in a county that revolved around Penn State sports—or more accurately, around the football team.
On my first engagement, I stood paralyzed behind an All-American volleyball player not knowing what on earth a massive black guy from England had to offer the scrawny group of near-transparent, mullet-bearing youths from all over Centre County that stood before us. A basketball extended toward me in two tiny hands and a simple game of keep-away in a high-school car park blew my preconceptions away and gave me my first taste of the joy of taking part, the magic of becoming a role model.
I feel ashamed that I sensed nothing out of place with the program, given the allegations now emerging. I cringe when I realize I may have played catch or even sat on the grass and chatted with young people who were at that same time being systematically persecuted. More than that, I selfishly feel like my personal introduction to philanthropy—for that is what those early days at Penn State was—is now fundamentally tainted. For me, The Second Mile led to 10 concurrent “little brothers” at first through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and then seemingly randomly. Many years later, I even took in children of my own—but now it feels like my family may have been built on the backs of broken children.
Jerry Sandusky, using many sports stars more eminent than me, created an irresistible veneer for a program whose potential positive impact may have been subverted for one man’s personal gratification at the expense of the very children who were drawn to us for solace. My conscience aches at the thought of my unwitting complicity in the pain of even one child and the knowledge that the numbers may continue to grow.
I stop my self-indulgence here. This scandal is not about how I feel. It isn’t about me. I looked at my school in horror a second time after the removal of Joe Paterno as head coach. A group of students held vigil around him as if, in the scheme of things, he were the victim, and then a smaller group took to the streets to riot at the perceived injustice of his fall. In both instances they yelled “We are… Penn State.” As a proud alum, I can tell them that in that moment—one I know many of them will come to regret—they were not Penn State. They failed to realize that this story is not about them. It’s not even about Joe Paterno, but rather about children allegedly abused in showers they may themselves have used. Children who would now be approximately the same age as of many of the rioting students.
The shame of this debacle isn’t the end of a sports dynasty. The scandal here isn’t the persecution of a vulnerable old man. The crime here isn’t a rush to judgment. The travesty here is that vulnerable children were allegedly identified, abused, and discarded, while those who may have seen it happen and those who were reportedly told the depth of the depravity stood by in order to temporarily stay a crisis within the football program. A choice appears to have been made, over the seemingly obvious option to save the innocence of children and the true reputation of the university as a whole.
I believe now is the time for real change in college sports. The football programs, and perhaps sports in general, have held unhealthy sway over the proceedings at more than just Penn State. At the school I love and many others across the United States, immediate, methodical change must be undertaken to regenerate the appropriate perspective, culture, and climate so that abuses of power on the micro- and macro-level can never become so pervasive and unchecked. This is an example that must be heeded and a lesson that must be learned by the many schools in the many conferences that share Penn State’s zeal for sports.
My personal reflection is that we who really are Penn State—and those whose empathy rightly lays only with the true victims—can’t go back in time to undo poor decision-making and nefarious silence. We can make athletic programs do what they promise to do in every game day brochure or recruiting guide—and in fairness, what Penn State did for me as a young student-athlete.
College sports is an untapped resource for holistic good and perhaps now we can use this scandal, which has rubbed our moral fibers raw, to find ways to use these powerful athletic programs and their participants to proactively improve the lives of the young people in the communities that surround them. I believe it’s possible in the wake of this crisis to buck convention and find ways to teach all involved in our athletic programs—administrators, coaches, faculty, and students—that what is magic about sports isn’t the ability to put one ball in a hole or run another over a line, but rather the disproportionate power that skill gives athletes and the programs of which they are a part. We have seen vividly what can happen when that disproportionate power is wielded selfishly, but try to imagine the greatness that could come of that power shared selflessly. Of course, new outreach programs could be carefully created. Athletes and coaches alike could be taught a few easy skills as a prerequisite, but mostly, the change I am proposing requires we re-evaluate what’s powerful, special, and important about college sports programs and rebalance the relationship they have with the communities who follow, support, and love them, as well as to the schools who create them, so that no sports program, no coach, and no school ever becomes so intertwined, and so compromised that they think themselves too big to be principled.
I loved Penn State the moment I arrived on campus, but enough people in the course of this tragedy have forgotten who “We are.” Some powerful people succumbed to a common temptation of unchecked power—the idea that it is possible to be a part-time person of principle, and because of that, young people suffered and it’s time for us to change.