The shrapnel from the Freeh Report on the Penn State scandal is still raining down on State College, but youd probably do yourselves a great big favor by worrying about the longterm fallout in your neighborhood too.
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Not because child molestation happens everywhere, but because hero worship does. Hero worship, and devotion to the brand.The report basically blows the former Penn State administration to bits, including the previously bulletproof Joe Paterno, for putting the safety of the brand ahead of human decency. Theres no elegant way to put this, so well say it -- sexually brutalized children were deemed collateral damage in the greater goal of protecting the institution.And it is that general instinct of the powerful and high-ranking to protect their systems no matter what the cost might be that is the danger we all should heed.That the Penn State nightmare happened under a sports umbrella should not surprise us, because there is no institution that understands the value of branding quite like sports. The temptation to blame this on Penn State for being Penn State is wrong, but the idealized version of Penn State is very much why Jerry Sandusky went unchecked hell, unsupervised, more like.And to argue exactly the extent of Joe Paternos knowledge of the crimes, and when he fully understood them, is to miss the greater point, which is this:The brand cannot be put ahead of people, ever. The brand is in and of itself an offensive concept, because it reduces all human endeavor to marketing and imagemaking. At Penn State, the brand was everything, and the football program was integral to the brand. The thousands of students who learned there, and hundreds of teachers and staff who worked there, and the jobs that were created around there, they were not the problem.The brand was the problem. A stupid reductive term became over time the raison detre for the schools existence in the minds and actions of those who controlled the institution, even in the face of one of the most monstrous crimes humans can devise.It is easy to understand why Penn State students, alums, faculty and even fans are going to be very defensive about the Freeh report, because it speaks to the greatest of the myths constructed around them. But neither Jerry Sanduskys crimes nor the fevered cover-ups that ensued were theirs, or their work, or their beliefs. They were victims, too, in a much smaller way.So yes, this was Sanduskys crime, followed by a level of moral and ethical cowardice by his superiors that may result in other convictions. But other than Sandusky, the crime was protecting the brand, at a time when the brand would have been far better served by a loud, public and aggressive defense of its most defenseless.This was not a difficult choice, either. A wrong was committed. There was one right thing to do. It wasnt done, because the people who needed to do it put the brand first, and only.And we all live with the curse of branding. Every sports team we have is a product of branding, and the imagery takes on its own life over time. When we prioritize stadium construction over public services, when we look the other way at bad or illegal behavior because we need the center fielder or running back or point guard too much, we are reinforcing the instincts of the Graham Spaniers, the Tim Curleys, the Gary Schultzes, and if the Freeh report is an accurate assessment, the Joe Paternos.No, the lesson here is the lesson for all. The brand is only as valuable as its willingness to serve those in its care its employees, its fans, its fellow citizens. If the brand is taking more than it is giving, it is unworthy of its status. If more effort is put into protecting the brand that it puts into protection, it isnt worth defending. And it should go even further. When you read or hear of a team or an athletes brand, the person who writes or says it must be regarded as a part of the problem. And the problem is everywhere. Penn State is getting it now because it defended the indefensible for more than a decade, but were all in the same boat. When we forget that the brand is to serve and not be served, we head down the same disastrous path.