Valuing Money and Football Over Children: Penn State and Joe Paterno

Last Fall, when news about Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation came out, I wrote a column for a Writing class on the case. Back then, the hammer had yet to be brought down on head football coach Joe Paterno, a talismanic figure at Penn State. This morning, a 267-page report on Penn State’s internal involvement with Sandusky came out. In the report, it was revealed that Joe Paterno, former athletic director Tim Curley, former vice president Gary Schultz, and former university president Graham Spanier, all had explicit knowledge of Sandusky’s crimes for over a decade. They all acted to cover it up in the best interest of the image of the university and the football program. I think my column is fitting for the mood of today. Lasted edited on December 1st, 2011:

This past month, Penn State University has been embroiled in a child molestation scandal. According to a recent grand jury report, former Penn State Football Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky performed sexual acts on eight boys over 15 years in Penn State football’s shower facilities. The crime has not only affected the football program, but also the entire university, as many Penn State academic and athletic officials were complicit in a university-wide cover-up of Sandusky’s actions.

Since the story broke, Athletic Director Tim Curley has resigned, and University President Graham Spanier and Head Football Coach Joe Paterno have been ousted. Through all of the charges, allegations and criticism, one essential, moral question has repeatedly been raised: How could all of these men (eight Penn State officials, not including Sandusky have been connected to the scandal), just stand by for over a decade while Sandusky ran rampant in their showers?

The answer, in fact, is rather clear. Each one of these men were trying to protect the integrity of their university. The media attention has been solely on Paterno, who’s God-like status at the university has collapsed into martyrdom in the eyes of Penn State students, as well as wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed Sandusky sodomize a boy. Penn State is known for their tremendous football program and legendary head coach, causing the story to spiral into a problem with the football team. These men who idly stood and literally watched Sandusky molest children wanted what was best for the university and it’s cash cow of a football program. In their eyes, it was in the best interests of the university to pretend that these events never occurred. They made it an image and money matter instead of a human crisis.

It is important, however, to provide due process for each individual involved with the scandal. One cannot forget the infamous Duke lacrosse rape case, in which three Duke lacrosse players were charged with raping a stripper at a house party. The players were quickly hung in the court of public opinion, their coach was fired and the remainder of their season was cancelled. As it turned out, North Carolina state prosecutor Mike Nifong and the accuser lied and made up facts to push the case to trial. Nifong, not the boys, ended up served jail time, as he was convicted of criminal contempt.

Currently, Sandusky has been found guilty in the public eye. He deserves his due process, but it’s hard not to see him as a guilty man. His interview on national television with NBC reporter Bob Costas has made him a dead man walking. In a faint, dry, creepy voice, he played down all the incidents as just “horsing around” in the showers. His answers were bizarre, but his tone of voice is what was scary.

19 men were mentioned in the grand jury report as having knowledge of the events, and countless other victims have come forward since the Costas interview. 19 men had knowledge of Sandusky’s actions, and each, according to the report, had a “limited response.” A limited response is what the victims got to protect the Penn State brand. The only action Curley and Gary Shultz, the head of the Penn State police department, took was to order Sandusky to not bring any more children from his Second Mile charity program to the football building. Never mind actual legal action—administrators basically gave Sandusky a spanking and a time-out for his wrongdoing, and let him continue on.

Paterno has received the bulk of media attention, as his status in the sporting world has been destroyed thanks to the scandal. His name has been stripped from the Big Ten Football Championship trophy, and some have even called for his statue outside of Beaver Stadium to be torn down. But let’s give Old Joe Pa the benefit of the doubt for one moment. After all, he testified that he only was told about “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature” to victims. He didn’t know of any oral sex or anal rape. No details were passed along to him. He swore to it, under oath. Scouts honor.

But stop right there. Only fondling and only something of a sexual nature? Why didn’t that spark alarm bells? Since when is “only fondling” between a grown man and a boy acceptable? It would be foolish to think that the head of Penn State’s football program didn’t know the details of all of Sandusky’s actions; Paterno’s legendary status and the prominence of the football team made him the most powerful man on campus—he knew it all.

Even if he only knew about some horsing around and touching, he still deserves to be hung from the highest tree for not asking more questions. As the face of the university, the man with the most power in Happy Valley, he had a moral responsibility to himself, his program, his school, and most importantly, the victims, to bypass his supervisor, bypass campus police, and go right to the state. If he could see himself as a great enough man to control one of the biggest sporting institutions in the country, he could pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1. Paterno had the power and the responsibility to right Sandusky’s wrongs, and bring justice to the victims and the community, but chose to protect the false integrity of himself and his program. Selfishness took the lead.

Despite the harsh morality of the situation, there has been fervent support for Paterno in the Penn State community. A quick YouTube search will display videos of thousands of students rioting on campus after Paterno’s firing was announced. Media vans were flipped over, and light posts were torn from the earth. $20,000 of property damage was done to the campus. The loyal support of Paterno is just as sickening as Paterno’s lack of action. Students were mad that their beloved football coach was fired. Boo-hoo. It’s easy to riot when an old man has never sodomized you or a loved one. The media and the Penn State community has yet to realize that the Sandusky scandal isn’t about sport. It’s about eight young men who had their world’s flipped upside-down by a pervert in a Nittany Lion embroidered towel.

Even back at the university level, the scandal is relevant. It questions the value of a Penn State education. How can students expect to receive a fair and balanced education at a university where the President and Vice-President can allow sexual crimes to be openly committed? How can a student, or a student-athlete commit to a school where potential faculty members and coaches have a demagnetized moral compass? Every academic, athletic and structural decision made at Penn State has got to be scrutinized further, because the people spending student and donor money are clearly ill.

And the students who rioted and destroyed property in Paterno’s name have proved that their faculty is indeed incompetent and sick. Their rioting translates into complicity with the officials who conspired to let Sandusky continue his sex spree. They wanted the story to go away just as much as the 19 men mentioned in the grand jury report to protect Paterno and Penn State football. Apparently rioting was their defense mechanism.

Clearly, the entire culture at Penn State needs to be reevaluated and overhauled. Putting the glee and greed of a football program over what’s inherently right speaks to a cultural and moral decay at Penn State. It’s now up to the men who replaced their rotten incumbents to re-culture the Penn State community.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

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