Swift, fair

Penn State and its football program are on the receiving end of fitting NCAA sanctions.

July 25, 2012 

The penalties were harsh and damaging and without compromise and that is how it had to be. The sexual abuse of innocent boys by high-ranking Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was profoundly harmful to victims and inexplicable in its continuation even after university officials at the highest level found out about it.

Those officials included a president, two senior administrators and the revered Coach Joe Paterno, the man who with his decades of football success and reputation for lofty ideals put the university on the map.

Paterno, fired from his coaching post, died at 85 before a report led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh confirmed just how bad the abuse was and how ineffective and inexcusable the university’s response to it was. But Paterno’s reputation, which had been held as an example to others, is ruined. Freeh’s report showed that Paterno knew more than he acknowledged knowing about Sandusky and helped, in effect, to delay action.

Paterno was all-powerful and when this most serious of challenges came before him, he failed. Others hesitated to cross the coach. And they doubtless worried as well about the effect of a monumental scandal on a university that, academic strengths aside, had allowed its football program to define it.

Now they know the effect. The NCAA, college sports’ governing body, has decimated the program, reducing scholarships, allowing players to transfer without penalty, voiding 111 of Paterno’s recorded victories, levying a $60 million fine. It likely will be a decade or more before Penn State returns to anything resembling a “major college football program.”


Not going away

Paterno reigned for four decades, and in that time he made the Nittany Lions not just a brand-name for big-time college football and national championships and the rest of it. He branded the university. Seriously, when “Penn State” entered a conversation, a discussion of football and Joe Paterno was almost sure to follow.

That was not a healthy situation for a university that should have sought a broader identity. For, when the walls tumbled down on the Penn State football program, destroying not just the next few seasons with penalties but its very legacy, the university’s reputation suffered greatly.

After all, no less than the president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, had to resign, his own reputation now forever linked with the scandal. He treated Joe Paterno with worship; his faith was misplaced.

And because Penn State was such a high-visibility “football school,” it’s going to see the scandal in the first few paragraphs of most anything written about the university from now on.

Letting it happen

Yes, of course there was more to the university than the football program, but too many campus leaders were willing to allow that program to dominate the campus. They lost perspective, or fooled themselves into thinking it didn’t matter. Paterno was so popular that some students continued to resist the idea (while he was alive but after the scandal broke) that he should pay a price for what happened until his role became so painfully clear.

While Penn State is the focus, other universities that are so enamored of their sports programs that they allow the tail to wag the dog must rethink their priorities. The child abuse that brought on this story is not, one would hope, a problem elsewhere. It seems this was a case of the wrong man, Sandusky, in the wrong place, a football operation where he was trusted too much, getting away with heinous activity that no one suspected for a long time.

But letting sports programs get so big that they are inordinately revered by alumni and feared by those on faculty and staff who know better is a very bad idea. Intercollegiate sports are worthy of being a priority at a large university, perhaps, but not if it means a loss of perspective on basic issues of right and wrong.

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