Joke adds insult to tragedy

An accusation of serial child abuse – and a Penn State football coach on trial for allegedly sexually abusing young boys in the showers – isn’t some daytime soap opera.

Only a creep would say so.

But Joe Amendola is a defense lawyer, representing Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State University defensive coordinator accused of raping children under his care. And Amendola thinks he’s starring in a soap.

Asked Tuesday if he’d put Sandusky on the witness stand, Amendola said something astonishing.

“Stay tuned,” he teased reporters. “Come on, it’s like a soap, you have to wait and see.”

“Is it ‘Days of Our Lives’?” a reporter asked.

“I think it’s ‘General Hospital,’” Amendola said. And later he added, “Actually, it could be ‘All My Children.’ ”

“All My Children”?

There were 10 boys who believed Sandusky cared about them when they were part of The Second Mile, Sandusky’s charity for at-risk youth. They were children once. As men, they testified against Sandusky. They testified that Sandusky put his hands on them and raped them in the showers at Penn State, groped them at university facilities, initiated oral sex at his home on sleepovers.

And Sandusky’s lawyer makes jokes about “All My Children.”

A criminal defense lawyer’s job is to defend his client, and sometimes that involves making aberrant behavior seem normal. You’ve seen it in political corruption trials. But in Pennsylvania, Sandusky’s defense took it one step further, arguing that coaches taking showers with kids was no big deal.

If you don’t think something’s wrong with an adult naked in a shower with kids, then you’re not a parent. But this week, Amendola put witnesses on the stand to say that it’s not unusual for grown men to take showers with children at Penn State. The witnesses said it was normal.

So we asked some experienced coaches if it was normal here, in Illinois.

“That type of thing is not part of any culture or system I’ve been in in high school or college or as a coach,” said Brett Detering, first vice president of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association. “There are separate facilities for coaches and students.”

Detering is the head coach at Anna-Jonesboro High School in southern Illinois. He played football in high school and in college, and he’s been coaching for 17 years. And he doesn’t take showers with his players. He’s never taken showers with his players.

“I don’t think that’s a regular occurrence anywhere,” he said. “It’s typical lawyering, grasping at straws.”

When I was a high school football player eons ago, our coaches were good guys, great coaches, but very old school. We hit hard every day in practice. They didn’t give us water to drink. Instead, they gave us salt pills. Water was for showering.

“Get in the shower,” the coaches said the first day. “And use soap.”

But they never showered with us. Ever. My brothers were athletes, too, and they never saw it. None of our friends showered with coaches. Ever. And guys I talked to at work Tuesday said their coaches never showered with them either.

Coach Detering said he doesn’t know of any policies or guidelines against showering with players. But then, I suppose there are no policies in the coaching manuals warning against sticking a fork into an electric socket.

“I would say that’s just common sense,” Coach Detering said of not showering with his players. “How anyone could be confused about that is beyond me.”

John Elder, executive director of the Illinois Coaches Association, spent 40 years as a football coach at Alexis High School in western Illinois, and retired from coaching eight years ago. He played at Alexis as a boy.

“But it was not normal, even then, for coaches to shower with the team,” Elder said. “It wouldn’t have been done back in the day, and it definitely wouldn’t be done today.”

In the pursuit of an alleged sexual predator, there’s something we shouldn’t forget. The victims who were hurt the most were the boys at Penn State. But there are other victims, too, in Pennsylvania and beyond. Coaches everywhere have been victimized by the Penn State scandal.

“Sometimes people paint with a very wide brush,” Elder said, noting that the average coach just wants to help kids.

There’s not much money in coaching, not for the vast majority of coaches, especially in high school. The reason they do it is because they care about those kids. A high school coach is responsible not only for the kids’ bodies, but also for their spirits.

Some kids need discipline. Some are spoiled and must be motivated to train. But most young athletes are driven. And most try so hard in training, and in games, that they can break their own hearts. The good athlete doesn’t obsess about success, but rather, about failure, and uses it as motivator to push even harder, even through pain.

The kids with great hearts are often more vulnerable to manipulation. And the kids whose hearts are broken, with either overwhelmed or indifferent or nonexistent parents, are the most vulnerable of all.

That’s why the Sandusky trial is so terribly sad.

It’s no soap opera.

Contact Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, at jskass@tribune.com.