Sacrifice: The Penn State Way

(Note: this is written from a Christian perspective. I understand if you do not agree; I hope that you are not offended. I am indebted to the work of Rene Girard, the French linguist, anthropologist, and social theorist, for the ideas that underlie this piece. An overview of his thought and an interview can be found at

Even after Europe had been Christianized in the Early Middle Ages, some of the old pagan traditions remained.


Archaeologists digging out the foundations of ancient bridges over the rivers of that continent often find the skeletons of infant children buried deep in the foundation of the bridge, a sacrifice to the angry gods who could be placated by an innocent victim.


As children, my brother and cousins and I sang the song:

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down;

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.


Take the key and lock her up,

Lock her up, lock her up.

Take the key and lock her up:

My fair lady.


What did it mean? It was a nonsense rhyme. It was something innocent from my childhood.  Whoever thought it would have been about child sacrifice?              


For years, Penn State football was something innocent from my childhood. It was a tradition for our family on fall Saturdays. Penn State usually won, and they won the right way. Penn State’s head coach, Joe Paterno, was a man of honor, as was his defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, the man who coached defenses that confused Heisman Trophy winners and produced All-Americans.


The crowning moment was when Vinny Testaverde and his powerful Miami Hurricanes confronted Penn State and a no-name defense in a #1 vs. #2 matchup in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Sandusky and the Penn State defense got inside Testaverde’s head, sacking him five times, causing five interceptions. At the end of the day, our Lions had defeated the mighty Hurricanes. My mom and dad, my aunt and uncle, my cousins and my brother and I stood in the freezing cold at Harrisburg airport to welcome them home. The loudest and longest cheer was for Jerry Sandusky, man of vision, man of integrity, man of honor.


Five undefeated seasons. Two National Championships. A Big Ten title in the second year in the league.   More money for the University. Major roads leading to Centre County. A state-of-the-art medical center. The Paterno family giving millions to the library and to the spiritual center. Jerry Sandusky helping children through ‘The Second Mile.’ The development of Penn State as a major research university. Beaver Stadium, the towering edifice, the 110,000 seat sacred cathedral of football.



Apparently, the pagan gods still demand sacrifice.


Starting with the apparent demon in Jerry Sandusky’s soul. If the charges against him are true, not even the success and admiration he enjoyed could not fulfill his need for adulation, could not satiate his desire for virgin flesh. He hated himself for it, maybe, but he had to have it. The innocents had to be sacrificed for the sake of the thrill, the affirmation, the power he craved.


The demons apparently successfully tempted Tim Curley and Gary Schultz as well. Faced with explicit testimony of the sexual assault of a child deep in the bowels of the Penn State practice facility, they had the chance to act, to continue a process that would free him from the prison of humiliation.  They failed in their responsibility. They did not try to save the child. They did not even try to save Jerry Sandusky. They did nothing but try and save Penn State. They failed in that, too.


And Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary? They at least had the intestinal fortitude to report the incredible act of indecency to their bosses, as was their legal and moral responsibility. On Saturday, I wrote an article defending them, and at least they did this much.



But questions swirl about what they knew, and what they should have done when nothing happened and Sandusky continued his life as before. Plenty of people are convinced of their guilt, but as of this moment, only they know if they made a deal with the devils. 


Sandusky continued his presence on campus, until just days before the demons sprung the trap on him and all of the people who had tied their lives to Penn State football.


The demons demand sacrifice, but the sacrifices do not suffice. Eventually the child who is buried under the bridge is unearthed. The skeletons in the closet are found. And the next ones on the sacrificial altar are the ones who apparently buried them in the first place, along with other innocents and semi-innocents who are dragged there with them. The ones who had trusted them. The ones who had admired them. The ones who had benefited from them. The ones who had idolized them.  


Today, a ninth victim has now come forward. People are apparently burning their Penn State diplomas on the lawn of Old Main. Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I college football history, the man who coined the phrases "Grand Experiment" and "Success with Honor," two-time national champion, five-time Coach of the Year, who is synonymous with Penn State, will reportedly be forced out of his job, maybe before the end of the football season.


When that which is sacred, which kept the community united because of its power, is found to be impotent, the members of the community turn on each other with a ferocity which can run wild.


The victims do not remain silent. They never remain silent.  In Genesis 4, Cain murders Abel, and then buries him. When God asks him where Abel is, Cain replies, "Am I my brother’s keeper?" "What have you done?" answers the Lord. "Look, your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground!"


While 110,000 fans screamed and shook the stadium to the pulse of ‘Zombie Nation,’ at least nine innocents were crying out, unnoticed, unimportant, unredeemed, seemingly unheard. Nine innocents, buried under Beaver Stadium, necessary sacrifices to the idol that Penn State football had become.


But the victims no longer go unheard. Now that we can hear them, now that we know that what was built was built partly by the sacrifice of their innocence and ours, nothing can be the same again. Beaver Stadium is no longer sacred ground, but lies under a curse. The Penn State football program, the reputation of Penn State University, lies in ruins. London Bridge has fallen down, and there can and must be no more victims sacrificed to rebuild it.


Our only hope is that there is another God, a God that does not desire or demand sacrificial victims, but who hears their cries, would rescue them from their oppressors, who would give everything up, even the glory, and trade it for the shame, if it meant that one innocent could be saved.



Today, the demons are laughing at all of us. We can only pray. Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy upon us all.


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