When stories related to college athletics make their way to the front page of the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, it’s seldom good news. And in the case of the Penn State scandal, which involves the most sordid and ugly reports of predatory child abuse and serial cowardice, it’s truly horrific, unspeakable news. The worst part, of course, is what happened to so many innocents and their families. Nearly as bad is what came to light in the state’s indictment, which makes clear that people in positions of respected authority—educators, administrators, coaches, self-styled leaders—allowed the predator to roam and hunt and destroy. If you think this language is too strong, read the information—much of which is not in dispute, even by those implicated—as outlined in the findings of fact. But only read this if you are ready to glimpse the most depraved, cowardly side of man.
That brings us to the dramatic decision by the Penn State Board of Trustees to dismiss the university’s president and head football coach, a decision that has drawn surprising criticism from some quarters. Simply put, it was the right thing to do. It didn’t heal the wounds or fix the damage caused by these crimes and subsequent cover-ups, but it did send a message that a regime stricken by moral failure and craven selfishness is over.
To be sure, the Trustees acted to protect the institution’s image and brand and future from further damage. This was not some noble act. Yet the Trustees deserve credit for stepping in to do what so many others failed to do. In taking this action, they also spared the university and its football team and the Big Ten athletic conference and the NCAA: Set alongside the sordid details in the findings of fact, the image of football coach Joe Paterno being carried off the field on national television, like some sort of hero, would only have added insult to the countless injuries. And the spectacle of Paterno facing the venom and vengeance of road crowds; the weeks of buildup before a likely Big Ten Championship game and Rose Bowl trip; and the hostile media exposure the frail and aging Paterno would endure would likely have spawned a range of ethical, legal and public-safety issues.
Speaking of the once-sainted coach, we are hearing much about how Paterno gave millions, built libraries and student centers, and selflessly gave to the university he loved. But the hard truth is that it was selfish and self-serving to shield the predator—and the untouchable football program—from the reach of law and justice. Even the coach’s announcement that he would retire at the end of the season was self-serving. It came as the Trustees were convening in emergency session, just hours before they would fire him. Some observers were saddened by the coach’s decision to quit, which carried the whiff of self-pity. In truth, it was a cynical attempt to maneuver and manipulate the situation—and as such, just an extension of what the coach and the program had done in relation to this situation for a decade, perhaps longer.
The Trustees saw through the diversion and relieved the coach of his duties, in effect codifying what had already been made manifest by the findings of fact: that the coach had lost all moral authority.
Those who hold themselves to a higher standard—those who allow others to elevate them onto pedestals—must be held to that higher standard.
But don’t take my word for it. In his effort to preempt the Trustees by trying to retire on his terms and play out the season, Paterno conceded, “I wish I had done more,” an admission that he had failed in his responsibilities. The defense that he and others involved in the scandal did what the law required by reporting the abuse up the chain of command is no defense. Doing what the law requires, after all, means doing the bare minimum. The bare minimum may be enough when one stumbles upon a violation of NCAA rules. But it’s not nearly enough when it comes to a crime against innocent children; it’s not nearly enough when it lets a predator roam free.
Rather than protecting the innocent, the goal seemed to be protecting the program. And the result enabled a monster. For those who support Paterno, for those who know his many good works by heart, for the misguided students who rallied and rioted on his behalf—forgetting or not caring that the predator’s victim list grew because of the inaction of their heroes—this is hard to hear. Indeed, it is hard to see heroes fall.
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 mom who has one too many cocktails, hops in the car and ruins someone’s world; 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.
As a consequence of the actions of a predator—and the inaction of good men—dozens of innocents are broken; reputations and institutions are tarnished; and, least important of all, Penn State faces an unprecedented time of testing.
Prison sentences, civil trials and multi-million-dollar settlements, while necessary and appropriate, won’t repair those who are broken; time won’t wash clean the stained reputations; and soul-searching and house-cleaning probably won’t make whole the venerable institution that Penn State was—at least from outward appearance—before November 2011. But as the trials and settlements move forward, the Big Ten athletic conference—where Penn State has been a member since 1990—may want to consider helping in two ways:
First, the conference should act as an advocate for Penn State’s players, who are not to blame for any of this, and call on the NCAA to offer a special waiver that allows all Penn State football players the opportunity to transfer to any school next year without losing eligibility. Under NCAA rules, when student-athletes transfer, they must sit out for a year and sometimes lose that year of eligibility. The NCAA has made exceptions like this for extraordinary situations in the past and should do so again.
Second, for the good of this deeply wounded university, the conference should explore with Penn State’s Board of Trustees whether it would be advisable for Penn State not to field a football team in 2012. This may seem drastic, but drastic measures are obviously necessary. The Penn State football program and administrative infrastructure appear to be so rotten that they need time and space to heal, rebuild and repair. A year without football would take away a major distraction and give the university the time it needs to focus on what really matters.