Group Narcissism and the Penn State Situation

Carl Bagnini, LCSW, BCD

In reading the reports and investigative results regarding ongoing and extensive child sexual abuse at Penn State it occurred to me that what happened at the institution can be viewed as a covert narcissistic male sub-culture of collusion, power dominance, and ruthless self-indulgence.  The overt behavior against children was denied, justified, and covered up for years, by a good old boys club, reeking of mutual stroking. In maintaining the huge money maker,  Penn State football, and coach Paterno’s god-like reputation the “group” rationalized hatred and envy of young children, by reducing them  to objects of lust and control.

The fear of exposure of the abuse has a history. The facts were known. The house of cards from top to bottom was maintained due to the narcissistic motives of the men in the positions of power and influence. The homo-affiliative nature of sports, especially “contact” sports like football fosters in older males insecurity and repressed envy of the young.  The young have a long life ahead, while the elders fear death and facing the questions of how good a life has one lived? Inflated self-importance is rampant among ageing men who see young and virile athletes as reminders of time passing, and lost physical prowess. Mentally and emotionally these fears create a veil of secrecy, and denial, and in Sandusky’s case, the full blown acting out of a malignant narcissistic pedophile. What type of environment could rationalize or deny abuse was taking place in a public space? We did not abuse the children, only he did? A flimsy excuse to any thinking individual, and the cover up was deep and wide. There had to be, in addition to administrative bottom line motives (Penn State economics) to cover up the influence of a group “culture” that avoided the personal pain and suffering involved by “knowing” what was occurring. Why the lack of conscience? Was Sandusky so beloved he could weave a Svengali web of innocence? It is too simplistic an assumption that one person relied totally on charisma and the scam of “devotion to improving the lives of children”. How could one man continue getting away with criminal behavior inside a locker room shower while others knew?

Narcissism in groups is well established; the worst example is Nazi Germany where people including victims followed orders and perpetrators later insisted they did not know the extent of the planned extermination of millions of countrymen, women and children. We are all subject to the narcissist’s seductive smile. We long to bask in his acceptance since it can be so intense because it is so fleeting. Sandusky, Paterno and others in power and in lower positions had to be caught up in denial by idealizing the institution—the god-like Football program, Penn State and the cold hearted credo we are “too big to fail” (remember Wall Street and the big banks?).

But beneath the now obvious institutional loyalties we must admit to a malignant negation that played its more sinister unconscious part: the hatred of the children’s vulnerabilities, that as victims they threatened the established belief system and its denied truths. In a caring world victims have justice, and by denying them protection and a voice the group ensured it was faultless, or justified. The victim is hated, not the victimizers. They are the scapegoats. That is group negation at its worst because any heinous crime can be rationalized.

Narcissism and the hatred of children exist in our society. When we hurt children with impunity or bear witness to acts of cruelty and are indifferent, or when we turn away from large scale cuttings of services to children and families, we are all responsible; but only if we remain silent as individuals or in groups can insidious forms of abuse, such as at Penn State go on institutionally—the end of a humane civilization is determined by the quality of care of our children and the elderly.  We need to remember the old Pogo cartoon with its sage warning: “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us”.