On Monday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, that bastion of high-minded money grubbers, came down hard on Pennsylvania State University’s football program in the wake of a major scandal and the conviction of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky last month for abusing ten boys over 15 years.
In exchange for avoiding the “death penalty”—a shutdown of its football program—the university agreed to pay $60 million in fines, accept a ban on Bowl appearances for four years, and take a cut in the number of athletic scholarships it can offer. Painstakingly recruited star athletes are now free to go anywhere else immediately.
The NCAA also stripped legendary head coach Joe Paterno of 111 of his record 409 victories—all the victories that occurred from the time Paterno and other university officials learned that Sandusky had molested underage boys and then hid the matter from authorities.
That posthumously deprived Paterno of his much cherished record for most victories by a college football coach and has destroyed a reputation for integrity built up over half a century on the sidelines. Paterno died early this year at 85 of lung cancer.
“Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert.
Nice sentiment, but the problem at Penn State was that football was always put ahead of everything else, and protecting the football program became the top priority, no matter the cost. Penn State football brought in tens of millions of dollars of revenue for the university and the local community, so it and Paterno were untouchable.
So, when assistant coach Mike McQueary saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in a Penn State shower in 2001, he did nothing to stop it, but told Paterno instead later that weekend. The grand old man fulfilled the letter of his legal responsibility by informing university officials, but engaged with said officials in a cover-up, according to a recent report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
In his report, Freeh blasted Penn State’s “culture of reverence” for football. Translation: Penn State football was the religion of Happy Valley, and no one was prepared to rock the boat. Not McQueary, who didn’t physically intervene, though he was younger and stronger than Sandusky; not the three university officials who knew but did not pass on the information, and not Joe Paterno.
In fact, Penn State top officials, who had known of Sandusky’s behavior, nonetheless gave him a fat lump-sum retirement payout of $168,000 in 1999 and let him have free range of the campus’s athletic facilities, where he continued to commit his nauseating crimes.
If Aurora, Colorado was what happens when a lone soul succumbs to madness and evil, Penn State epitomizes an institution trying to protect an evildoer at the expense of its own reputation and integrity—and the victims, of course.
In such environments—the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal is another example—truth tellers are hounded and destroyed, whistleblowers marginalized and the guilty are protected and even rewarded. When the institution is more important than the lives of the people that institution serves, immense suffering may occur until a powerful outsider exposes the evil or puts it to a stop.
Joe Paterno’s statue has been removed from outside the football stadium, and his record has been taken away. “This is not a fair or thoughtful action; it is a panicked response to the public’s understandable revulsion at what Sandusky did,” the family said.
Maybe so, but true moral tests are always difficult, and this revered coach, who prided himself on running a clean football program, failed his biggest test, and took his prized legacy down with it.