11/18/2011 02:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 18, 2012

Jerry Sandusky, the Underprivileged and Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

The public has reacted furiously to the indictment of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky for heinous sex crimes against children. That someone in a position of power took advantage of vulnerable kids has forced us as a culture to do some serious thinking about our leaders, our institutions and our values. In that sense, some good can come out of times like these if we use them to re-examine our priorities. Most have talked about what the tawdry affair says about our leaders, especially Joe Paterno. The sense of disappointment and betrayal that many feel shows just how much they had invested in him as a symbol what was good at the University and in our culture. Knocked out at the knees by yet another scandal, our trust in our leaders is as wobbly as the 84-year-old-coach himself. I have been telling distraught students all week that we are more than our iconic coach or our tarnished administrators, and that we need to double-down on our slogan "We are Penn State" and define ourselves by how we respond to the situation we find ourselves in.

As a culture, I hope we likewise learn to focus less on the elite men who we are taught to follow and think more about the victims that the cult of leadership often overshadows. The victims in this case were "underprivileged kids" from poor or broken homes, and when a privileged coach extended a helping hand, they gratefully accepted. Their economic vulnerability led them straight into harms' way because the system that once helped people like them has increasingly forced them to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Who knows why exactly Jerry Sandusky founded The Second Mile foundation to help underprivileged kids, but it really took off during the Reagan era, about the same time that conservatives began to pick apart the social welfare safety nets that the New Deal and Great Society had woven to keep the vulnerable from falling too low. Lower taxes for the wealthy took priority over programs to help the poor. By the late 80s, around the time that Paterno and Sandusky won their second national championship, the kinds of economically vulnerable parents whose kids needed programs like The Second Mile the most found themselves increasingly beholden to the elites whose patronage funded such private charities. George Bush, the elder, made noblesse oblige the buffer to his party's relentless defunding of the social welfare system, calling for an America that would be guided by an elite "thousand points of light." Both coaches were tied to a political party that emphasized the cult of leadership and success. Paterno, whose philanthropic generosity to Penn State has been exemplary and transformative -- and who really does run a clean program that emphasizes academics, was honored by Bush as one of these "points of light" in 1989; the title came a year later for Sandusky, who was later honored by Senator Rick Santorum with a "Congressional Angels in Adoption" award for his work with kids.

In Pennsylvania, Paterno and Sandusky symbolized a kind of rags-to-riches natural aristocracy. They were men of humble origins whose hard work had made them successful and powerful, and the gravity of their orbit drew people to them. About the time that Sandusky "retired" and the reports of inappropriate behavior began to surface, The Second Mile had become a two- million-dollar-a-year source of help to the underprivileged of central PA. As Clinton-era welfare reform forced more women into the labor force, there was more need than ever. A 2000 report from the Finance Project indicated that over 22 million kids nation wide had one or two parents at work during after school hours. From 1998 to 2000, federal funding for increasingly privatized after school care grew from 40 million to 450 million. Over the past decade, while the need for such programs has exploded, federal funding has been cut. The Second Mile drew on the economic elite that Sandusky and the Penn State Football family had access to, making them a godsend to those who had no where else to turn. Most programs, however, are underfunded. Yet the rich get richer in our system and the Second Mile thrived. It was here that Sandusky groomed his victims.

Penn State too has come to rely more and more on the kindness of strangers. Over the last three decades, the idea of a publicly funded state university providing education to citizens faded as Paterno and Sandusky's stars rose. From the mid-70s when Sandusky started coaching until 1998 when he stopped, state appropriations went from over 60% to around 30% of Penn State's operating budget. More burden was shouldered by underprivileged students and more effort was put into building the endowment by chasing and pleasing donors. Football in this culture became central to the economic health of the university. Jerry Sandusky still had brand appeal for donors as a symbolic leader, and this power allowed him to keep his keys to the new multi-million dollar football complex because a janitor, fearful of losing a good job, had been too scared to blow the whistle on the emeritus coach after seeing him sexually assault a boy.

Fear of losing a job leads a lot of people to look the other way and enables the powerful to take advantage of the underprivileged. Democratic theorists have long argued that people are not truly free to express themselves as citizens when living under a regime of coercion. Indeed, social inequality has long posed a challenge for democracy, which is why modern democracies started creating welfare systems in the 19th century. The state, reformers argued, should provide support for the underprivileged so that they wouldn't be beholden to the powerful and could better exercise their autonomy. Common sense tells us that the more someone has to lose, the less they are willing to challenge those whose beneficence their lives depend upon.

And so it was in Happy Valley that a relationship of economic dependency led to football dominating the culture. The staff knew it, the faculty knew it, the administration knew it, and when the Board of Trustees suggested to Joe Paterno that he retire several years ago and he told them to go away, they knew it too. It was this relationship of dependency, exacerbated by yearly decreases in appropriations from the state -- in 2011 Tom Corbett approved a $3 million grant to Second Mile while cutting the University's funding by 19% to balance the budget in a manner more pleasing to his donors -- that enable football to dictate the terms based on its position of power. It was too big to fail. Similarly, every time a member of the philanthropic class gave millions for a named building but little to Penn State's general funds to offset tuition raises or salary freezes, we were told that the donor had dictated the terms of the gift. We came to accept, like the underprivileged kids who were grateful to be taken to football games by an icon like Jerry Sandusky even if his behavior was creepy or worse, that we should be grateful for any gift at all. These are the cultural conditions, where elite points of light determine how things work and those who live in their shadow learn to rely on the kindness of strangers, that allow predators to prey upon the underprivileged.

At Penn State, we have been talking all week about the need for greater transparency and shared governance so as to avoid putting so much power in the hands of an elite few. This seems prudent. So, if we as a society really want to keep things like this from happening again, maybe we should stop horsing around with the fantasy of a society led by a responsible elite while we the people cheer or jeer from the sidelines. Doing something about our systemic economic inequality, where so few have so much power over so many, is the best place to start.