Fall 2011 was a difficult time for many Penn State alums, who watched in despair as the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal dominated the nation’s attention and sullied the university’s once pristine reputation.
But it was an especially trying time for former Nittany Lions wide receiver and Mechanicsburg native Scott Shirley, the founder and executive director of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money for rare disease research.
The parallels between his organization and the beleaguered The Second Mile — both nonprofits with significant ties to Penn State — were not lost on Shirley.
The Second Mile’s reputation took an irreparable hit when reports revealed that Sandusky had met many of his victims through the charity, and even as the organization tried to distance itself from Sandusky, Shirley worked tirelessly to ensure that his organization would not suffer any backlash simply by virtue of its Penn State origins.
In the days immediately following news of the scandal, Shirley consulted with public relations and crisis management experts and talked to attorneys he knew “just to get an understanding on how to operate in this environment.”
“Beyond that, communication was key,” Shirley said. “We communicated with our [Uplifting Athletes chapters] and the coaches of those teams to let them know that we would remain neutral [and not be] too quick to say, ‘We will have nothing to do with Penn State’ or to come out and stand behind them.
“Above all else, there had been no due process and I didn’t feel that it was proper for us to take a stand one way or another, and I wanted to ensure that people knew that.”
Uplifting Athletes chapters are student organizations run by college football players at each participating school. Each chapter adopts a rare disease as its cause, and players hold fundraising campaigns to raise awareness for their adopted disease.
Now, as the dust from the initial explosion begins to settle, it appears that Uplifting Athletes has weathered the storm well.
“I was worried, and I still am,” Shirley said. “But on the balance sheet at the end of the year, I think people have been able to separate the affiliation from our higher purpose.
“And it’s been an opportunity for us to take a step back and look at the magnitude of our efforts and realize that it’s truly greater than one institution, and that we’re serving a constituency of 30 million Americans who are affected by rare diseases.”
Count new Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien as one of those 30 million. O’Brien’s son, Jack, was born with lissencephaly, a rare genetic brain malformation.
Shirley says he has yet to meet O’Brien in person but that some of O’Brien’s former players have told him that the coach will likely be very supportive of Uplifting Athletes’ mission.
Shirley would like to continue the traditionally close relationship Uplifting Athletes has had with Penn State, where the flagship chapter was founded, and he’s hoping the organization’s inaugural Gridiron Gala this April will help Nittany Nation close some wounds.
The black-tie optional event to raise money for rare diseases will be held at The State Museum on April 20 and a host of former Penn State football players have been invited along with a list of former college football stars.
“I think it’ll be critical to our organization and may even contribute to the healing process for the local Penn State community,” Shirley said.
As Shirley pointed out, organizations like these are “a reason why people fell in love with Penn State to begin with.”