The NCAA Ruling and the Victims
With the flurry of emotions and opinions surrounding Monday’s NCAA announcement, PCAR’s Kristen Eisenbraun Houser ’93 is focused on the victims’ perspective. The sanctions, says Houser, will be a “catalyst for change not just at Penn State, but nationwide.” She talked with us about the NCAA’s ruling and what it means for all victims of child sexual abuse.
What message does the NCAA send to survivors of child sexual abuse with the sanctions against Penn State?
There are several important messages. First off, using the $60 million fine to endow services is the most appropriate thing that could have been done. It’s a phenomenal gesture to begin an endowment of that size, and that speaks volumes. The NCAA is recognizing a national problem of great scope, and the need for victims’ services should be first and foremost.
Dr. [Mark] Emmert’s statements were very much on target with conversations we’ve been having in the PCAR office. The sanctions send a strong message that protecting human dignity and safety trumps sport, period.
I’ve been very frustrated that the recent conversation has been about football, statues, and ice cream flavors. Those are distractions. If the alumni and fans would spend a third of the time talking about prevention, it would take us so far, so much closer to where we need to be. I think there are many alumni feeling a sense of personal betrayal, and we’re seeing people react out of anger. I can understand that, but well, gosh, if you feel that way as a alum, imagine how it feels to victims to hear the conversation focus on football.
Part of the NCAA’s goal is to promote a culture change at Penn State. How well do you think these “corrective measures” will work?
I do think culture change is possible. The NCAA raised the bar and put in place some supports and protections that will be very effective, especially the third-party oversight. Some of the change is already happening. Coach O’Brien reached out to PCAR in May—on his own—wanting to talk about ways the football program can work with us. He sees the need for that and recognizes the difficult issue of loyalty. You absolutely need loyalty among players, but loyalty to the team is about making sure we’re all holding each other accountable for being decent human beings. The new leadership has been talking about this shift of perspective for months.
Could that shift signal cultural change nationwide?
Absolutely. We know the University of Michigan and Temple are already implementing changes. Since this case broke, other major universities have realized, “We really better think about this stuff.” What’s happening at Penn State has inspired other institutions to have a plan in place, and I think as Penn State begins to change and improve, perhaps we will emerge as a leader.
For victims of child abuse who are following this case, could these harsh sanctions against Penn State feel like a victory?
I don’t know that any of this is a victory. It’s one level of tragedy on top of another. Some people may feel a sense of validation in the punishment, and that may feel positive. But I feel like what’s happening is, our country is trying to paint everything into one or two boxes. Joe Paterno was good, or Joe Paterno was evil. Penn State football is good, or it’s evil.
Whenever you have the masses setting up an all-or-nothing situation, it maintains an environment that’s hostile for victims to come forward. A victim’s experience is, “I want the abuse to stop, I want them to be accountable for their actions, but I care for this person.” So when the rest of us insist, “You have to hate this person,” we’re not leaving space for what survivors experience to be real. We have to accept that there is more than one side.
So, Penn State football is not good or bad?
Football culture is not terrible. It can be really wonderful; it’s a community identity, it brings communities together, it’s a mutual celebration. There’s great camaraderie in that. We need to be able to hold multiple truths at once. That’s how life is. Life is many, many shades of gray. If we’re going to insist people are all good or all bad, then that’s what offenders want. It allows them to operate under the “good” label while doing horrible things.
What would you say to people who think the punishment is too severe?
That’s OK. This isn’t going to make people happy. But what I heard Emmert saying was, the errors were so egregious that they deserve strong punishment and strong motivation to change. We have to remember, too, that if you’re not a victim of child sexual abuse, it’s difficult to grasp the complete destruction it brings to your soul, the people who love you, your ability to have relationships, your ability to excel in life. Victims are so permanently damaged by sexual abuse.
If Sandusky is the stereotypical pedophile he appears to be, there are probably hundreds of other victims, at his hands, who are watching this thing play out and who understand the severity and devastation of what happened here.
How can alumni express their own sadness without forgetting about or belittling the victims’ pain?
I don’t think our culture lets us grieve, and this is something to grieve over. This is loss. It’s the loss of a part of our identity, loss of something we believed in, a violation of trust. Those are significant, painful things. It’s OK to be sad, angry, grief-stricken, and to sit with that. That’s the appropriate reaction.
Another way to cope is to get involved. There are rape crisis centers, child-protection organizations, youth-serving groups all over the country. People have opportunities to make a difference through donations, volunteering their time, by going through a training to work with survivors. People feel so outraged and want to be part of the solution, and you can do that anywhere in this country.
So, helping prevent abuse can be healing.
I think it can. The other thing that helps is just communication. Social media gives us an opportunity to come together, but sometimes it’s difficult to have constructive conversations when there are very angry, outspoken, polarizing voices. I would encourage people to set up your own email list with friends, coworkers, people sharing the same feelings, and simply start a conversation. It’s healthy to talk about what you’re feeling and what you’d like to do about it. Trying to figure out how to facilitate the grieving process is important, and it’s the first step in moving forward.
Mary Murphy, associate editor