Revisiting the Penn State Scandal after the Freeh Report

Back when news broke of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, I went to pains to point out that it was plausible Joe Paterno had done what he was supposed to do, but was failed by an administration more interested in its image than the safety of children. Based on the facts available and Paterno's statements at the time, I still believe that was a reasonable position to take.

But last week's Freeh Report laid waste to that position's defensibility. It's clear now that Paterno should have been suspicious after the 1998 police investigation, and that Mike McQueary's 2001 report should have been the end of Sandusky's association with Penn State, not to mention life as a free man. Not only did Paterno know of Sandusky's actions, he participated actively in covering up those actions.

My position at the time was based not only on the facts then available, but also my predisposition to give people the benefit of the doubt when plausible. It was based also on Paterno's technical position as "just" a football coach, who reported to his athletic director, who in turn reported to the president of Penn State University. As Jon Morse and I pointed out at the time, the appropriate action in such situations is to report to the administration, then leave things alone.

But that assumed that the administration was not captive to a legendary football coach. As we now know, that assumption was not valid.

In the aftermath of the Freeh Report, there's been a lot of discussion about what this means for college football. In the best article I've yet read on the subject, Slate.com's Josh Levin points out the skewed priorities at today's major football universities:

But even in the worst possible world, Penn State would do itself a favor by figuring out how to survive without football lucre. When you can plausibly argue that the eradication of a sports team would destroy an academic institution, that’s a signal the relative importance of sports and academics need to be recalibrated.

Would the elimination of football destroy Penn State? I doubt it. As Levin points out, Southern Methodist University survived after its death penalty. But maybe the more important point is this: SMU's football program was eradicated over paying players. Penn State harbored and enabled a known child predator for about 10 years, and arguably as long as 14 years. I agree that this doesn't technically fall within the NCAA's purview, and I would rather they not strain their bylaws to levy a penalty here.

But if Penn State doesn't voluntarily punish itself, and severely, it will show conclusively that Penn State still doesn't get it. They'll wrap their decision in such justifications as "not punishing innocent student athletes" and "not harming other sports programs at Penn State," when what they really mean is "we'll lose a lot of money, and maybe our Big 10 affiliation, and with that a lot of research money, if we suspend football for a year or two." So what? The athletes from all programs can be allowed to transfer. Smart professors and students from elsewhere can perform the research that would have occurred at Penn State. Penn State is not irreplaceable.

SMU was made an example for the 1980s excess of paying players, which was happening at many schools. We can argue whether that should really be punishable some other time, but it's not the point here. There is absolutely no plausible argument that paying college athletes is in any way comparable to harboring, enabling, and covering up for a known child predator. We can only hope that Penn State is unlike SMU in that it is the only place where something this atrocious has occurred.

But an example needs to be made now to illustrate a wider point. Coaches, administrators, and athletic department employees everywhere need to know, without any shred of doubt, that football is not so important that illegal activity can be ignored or overlooked. I would like to think that most people realize that the image of anything, particularly something like a college-football program, is nowhere near as important as the safety of children. But Penn State has made it clear this is a conversation we have to have. And if Penn State doesn't realize that this example needs to be set, then some entity, whether it's the Pennsylvania legislature or the federal government or the NCAA, needs to help Penn State reach this realization.

Finally, what does the Penn State situation mean for fans of other programs? It should be a reminder that the people running your chosen institution are human beings, not gods or royalty or some other unquestionable authority from on high. Defend what's reasonable, but recognize that your coaches and administrators will make mistakes and have lapses in judgment. Learn to recognize those lapses in judgment, and hold your own as accountable as you would hold your rival.

Every school in this country is one employee like Jerry Sandusky away from finding out whether their administrators would respond appropriately. Let's hope that, if nothing else, the Penn State Scandal serves as a reminder that nothing is more important than public safety, especially the safety of children.

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