Time to remove the university's bronze statue of Joe Paterno?
Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator of Penn State’s football program, was convicted on 45 counts of sexual abuse of children in June. Sandusky used his position of authority, the trappings of big-time college football, and the facilities and respected name of Penn State, to prey upon young boys. But as we now know, the sordid story doesn’t end there.
Sandusky’s crimes went on for more than a decade. And Penn State’s administration, athletics department and football program did nothing about it until Sandusky was indicted last fall. In fact, what many suspected at the time is now beyond dispute: Former football coach Joe Paterno, former president Graham Spanier, former athletics director Tim Curley and others served as enablers for Sandusky and his monstrous crimes. As late as 2007, Sandusky had full access to football facilities and even kept an office as a “coach emeritus.” That’s 13 years after Sandusky’s first known attack and nine years after the first Sandusky attack the Penn State hierarchy was made aware of.
As the Freeh report concludes, by granting Sandusky continued access to the football program, Paterno and others “empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus…Indeed that continued access provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims.”
In short, people in positions of respected authority allowed a predator to roam and hunt and destroy. If you think this language is too strong, read the information in Freeh’s report—but only if you are ready to glimpse the most depraved and cowardly side of man.
That brings us to the legacy of Joe Paterno, who was fired last fall as the scandal unfolded and died just a few months later, succumbing to cancer. We have heard much about how Paterno donated millions, built libraries and student centers, and selflessly gave to the university he loved. Students and alumni marched in support of the sainted coach. But the hard truth is that Paterno covered up a heinous crime and allowed Sandusky to destroy the lives of young boys. In his press conference, Freeh concluded that Paterno and the Penn State hierarchy “showed no concern” for the victims, displayed a “total disregard for the safety and welfare of the victims” and “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities.”
Rather than protecting the innocent—the report scathingly concludes that Paterno and other higher-ups “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade”—the goal was to protect the football program. For those who know Paterno’s many good works by heart, this is hard to hear. Indeed, it is hard to see heroes fall. But those who hold themselves to a higher standard—those who allow others to elevate them onto pedestals—must be held to that higher standard.
Paterno did many, many good things in his half-century of coaching. But one bad thing—especially something this appalling—can sweep away all the good. This truth applies to anyone: the good husband who has but one indiscretion and ruins a family; the good teacher who loses control for just a moment and ruins her career; the good surgeon or CEO who cuts a corner and ruins someone’s life. This truth—this frailty of reputation—hangs over all of us.
Soon, the NCAA will weigh in on the Sandusky-Paterno scandal. There are reports that the NCAA is investigating Penn State for a “lack of institutional control” (LOIC)—code for the most serious violations of the spirit and letter of NCAA rules. The punishment could be devastating for the football program, including the NCAA equivalent of the death penalty.
Early in the scandal, informed observers dismissed the possibility that the NCAA could or would invoke an LOIC judgment against Penn State. But even a novice’s read of LOIC language—and count me as a novice when it comes to the NCAA’s byzantine compliance process—suggests that what Penn State’s football program allowed to happen meets the very definition of a lack of institutional control.
Under the heading, “Acts That Are Likely To Demonstrate A Lack of Institutional Control,” we find the following examples:
• “The institution fails to make clear, by its words and its actions, that those personnel who willfully violate NCAA rules, or who are grossly negligent in applying those rules, will be disciplined and made subject to discharge.” Some will argue that the NCAA has no part in these matters because NCAA rules were not technically broken. This is nonsense. Implicit in being a member in good standing of the NCAA must be the observance of state and federal laws. To flout the laws of a state and/or of the United States is to violate the very spirit of the NCAA’s standards. What Paterno and the Penn State hierarchy did and didn’t do is far worse than any player-payment scandals, grade-fudging or out-of-season contact with recruits. “It is the duty of adults to protect children and to immediately report any suspected child sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities,” as Freeh explained. Paterno and his co-conspirators did not even meet this lowest, most basic level of compliance with the law. By word and action, Paterno and the Penn State hierarchy obstructed justice.
• “A head coach fails to create and maintain an atmosphere for compliance within the program the coach supervises.” Football is all that mattered at Paterno’s Penn State. “Football runs this university,” said the janitor who saw one of Sandusky’s assaults, trying to explain why he couldn’t report the crime. As the Freeh report put it, there was “a culture of reverence for the football program…ingrained at all levels of the campus”—not a culture of compliance with the law.
• “A person with compliance responsibilities fails to establish a proper system for compliance or fails to monitor the operations of a compliance system.” The head football coach and AD, in effect, created a system that encouraged non-compliance with the laws of the state.
• “A director of athletics or any other individual with compliance responsibilities fails to investigate or direct an investigation of a possible significant violation of NCAA rules.” Again, the guilty parties took no steps to correct the Sandusky problem when it became apparent that the system wasn’t working. “Although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated,” Freeh concluded, “no such sentiments were ever expressed…for Sandusky’s victims.”
Perhaps knowing what was to come, Paterno contended that “This is not a football scandal and should not be treated as one.” Nothing could be further from the truth, of course: It was a football coach who committed these crimes; he committed many of these crimes at football facilities and at football-related events; and it was a football coach who averted his gaze from these crimes.
After the scandal broke, a portrait of Sandusky on Penn State’s campus was quietly painted over—and rightly so. Given Judge Freeh’s findings, it may be time to remove the bronze statue of Paterno as well.
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