On Graham James, Jerry Sandusky, and their vile legacy

Locker RoomVile, disturbing, disgusting …

As more and more facts arose last week from the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, those words kept reverberating through my mind.

How could a monster like Jerry Sandusky be allowed to prey on some of the weakest and most vulnerable in our society in the middle of an institution of higher learning? How could a graduate assistant coach not intervene and simply leave the scene of such a galling crime? How could a administrative structure and culture of silence – “Omerta”-like in its nature – exist in a major university which in turn allowed them to cover up such heinous behavior?

And how could someone like Joe Paterno – previously recognized as a paragon of virtue in the all-too-often un-virtuous world of intercollegiate athletics – essentially turn a blind eye to the point of complicity of his former assistant coach’s behavior?

And yet, sadly, I’d heard it all before.

I couldn’t help but reflect on an interview I did with Sheldon Kennedy back in February of 1997. Kennedy had been the central figure in the molestation case against junior hockey coach Graham James, who was convicted of 350 counts roughly a month before.

By then he was with the Boston Bruins after starting his career with the Detroit Red Wings, then the Calgary Flames. At the time of James’ plea and subsequent and sentencing to 3 ½ years in prison, there were whispers about how another well known NHLer was involved. “If you knew who it was, it would blow your mind,” someone put it to me once. Turns out it was All-Star forward Theoren Fleury.

“I don’t mind talking about it,” Kennedy said then, his voice resolute but still shaking slightly. “I took a stand on it myself and I had to be ready for what it took.”

Like Sandusky’s victims, Kennedy was also a minor under the control of a diabolical coach who “groomed” him, like many victims of sexual predators.

The James molestation case shook the Canadian junior hockey culture to its core. In the same way, Sandusky’s arrest and the subsequent Grand Jury report – not to mention the allegations of an institutional cover-up – have shaken the foundations of Penn State’s football culture.

For generations Canadian parents have sent their sons, often as young as age 15 and 16, off to another town to play for teams and live with families, or “billets,” while the boys play for clubs run by coaches whose decisions about ice time will determine the youngster’s hockey future.

Often they are more than just coaches, they are father figures. Players are told by their real parents to “do whatever the coach says.”

James, who was 32 at the time, took to Kennedy early. James controlled his hockey and daily life from ages 14 to 19, Kennedy said of the coach abused him twice weekly.

There was nowhere to turn. He couldn’t tell his parents or his teammates. He couldn’t make friends, couldn’t trust anyone. His good junior career didn’t translate into a solid NHL career, and he began abusing alcohol and eventually cocaine. He couldn’t maintain a relationship. He contemplated suicide.

“You feel people are looking at you,” he told the Calgary Herald in January 1997. “I put up a shield. I didn’t let anybody in. It’s a very lonely way to feel. You never feel normal. You know something is wrong but you don’t know why it is like that.”

Eventually, though, he did get his life together. He established the Sheldon Kennedy Foundation to help victims of sexual abuse in Canada. He is a co-founder and spokesman for The Respect Group, an organization whose goal is to educate coaches, teachers and other leaders of youth activities about abuse, bullying and neglect.

“This is a major problem in our society,” he said then. “And I felt with my position – playing in the National Hockey League – that I could make a pretty big stand on sexual abuse.”

It’s good to see that he’s kept up with his word. Laws have changed; awareness has increased. Last week both he and Fleury could be seen on various media outlets talking about their histories – in every last brutal detail it seemed – and how to raise awareness.

Still, can anyone get past the irony: Nearly a year after James’ incarceration in 1997, and all the headlines it created, the first case of Sandusky’s abuse came to light.

Near the end of my column I wrote, “Who knows how many other Graham Jameses are out there?”

Now we know of at least one.

We know that a university, its president, its athletic director and a football coach all allowed themselves to look after the greater good of the institution instead of the welfare of the victims. They opted for bureaucracy instead of doing what was right. Edmund Burke nailed it: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Hockey is lucky in that it has at least two good men – Kennedy and Fleury – who overcame their demons and managed to do what’s right. The kids who rioted and the other Nittany apologists in Happy Valley probably should take note …

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