On November 4, 2011, a grand jury indicted Jerry Sandusky, a former defense coordinator of the Penn State football team, on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys. The following day he was arrested and released on $100,000 bail.
Unlike other posts on the Penn State scandal, I will be focusing on Sandusky and the ramifications of his actions through the lens of social identities and social perceptions, instead of discussing Joe Paterno’s dirty hands. In class we labeled social identity as being shaped by one’s actions. Sandusky’s charges are extremely serious; he is accused of sexually assaulting eight boys over the last 15 years. In America, all suspects are innocent until proven guilty. However, does that really matter nowadays? Once news broke out, news stations across the country began spreading the story like rapid fire. His identity in the eyes of the world immediately became tainted, and will forever remain that way even if he is acquitted of all charges. Is that fair? Is that punishment enough? I am by no means implying that I believe he is innocent or that it is in any way unfair to put him to trial; I am simply analyzing the affect the media has on identity and reputation on an innocent man in the eyes of the law (for now, at least). For the purposes of this point, suppose he was found innocent, would any company ever risk the negative publicity that would come with hiring him? Would people on the street stop staring at him in a dirty way? The answer to these questions is a staggering, “no.” From the moment his picture was released with the words “sex crimes” and “young boys” attached, Sandusky’s reputation is ruined forever.
In an effort to salvage his reputation, Sandusky agreed to be interviewed by The New York Times this past week, almost a month after he was arrested. “They’ve taken everything that I ever did for any young person and twisted it to say that my motives were sexual or whatever,” Sandusky said, “I had kid after kid after kid who might say I was a father figure. And they just twisted that all.” In the interview, he insisted repeatedly that he never sexually abused any children. He did, however, confirm some of the events that he was accused of such as regularly giving money, opening bank accounts, and giving gifts to the disadvantaged children at his charity, Second Mile. As his lawyer, Joseph Amnedola said, “All those good things that you were doing have been turned around,” speaking to Sandusky, “and the people who are painting you as a monster are saying, ‘Well, they’re the types of things that people who are pedophiles exhibit.’” By agreeing to the interview, insisting that the accusations are false, and stating his side of the story, did Sandusky end up reviving his reputation at all?
Nowadays with technology and media, one’s social identity can be ruined in a matter of seconds, as we saw in this case. If one’s name is brought up in a bad light and is broadcasted via the Internet or the television, it is essentially irreversible. Even if the evidence brought up is disproved, it is still next to impossible to change the public’s perception once that negative image is established. How do we reconcile this if we live in a country where people are meant to be innocent up until the second they’re proven guilty. For now, Sandusky has not been proven guilty, but he is surely not seen as an innocent man in the eyes of the public; he is seen as a pedophile. Is that fair? Is Sandusky’s name tarnished forever, even if he is found innocent? I personally believe that if he is found innocent that there should be a way to reclaim his identity and reputation. What do others think?