Penn State Football Program Should March On

We had an interesting debate in “The Fast Lane” in regards to whether or not the NCAA, or Penn State itself, should shut down the Nittany Lion football program in the wake of the Freeh report on Jerry Sandusky’s crimes there, and the cover-up that ensued by the four most powerful people at the institution.

As far as the NCAA delivering a Death Penalty, ESPN’s Joe Schad reported that people he talked to in the NCAA said there isn’t any rule in their manual that would call for banishment of the program. Indeed, the requirement for the Death Penalty in college sports says: “The rule stipulates that if a second major violation occurs at any institution within five years of being on probation in the same sport or another sport, that institution can be barred from competing in the sport involved in the second violation for either one or two seasons. In cases of particularly egregious misconduct, a school can also be stripped of its right to vote at NCAA conventions for four years.”

So for those rooting for college sports’ governing body to shut down the program, don’t count on it. Penn State has never been punished by the NCAA, let alone in the last five years. As far as Penn State doing it itself, it seems unlikely. Penn State football is a way of life in central Pennsylvania, and it seems doubtful the University is going to do more to itself than the legal system already has.

The Freeh report found that “four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University – President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President]Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno – failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”

At no other point in the 267-page report does another name of someone in power who knew about Sandusky’s crimes come up. Spanier, Schultz and Curley are all gone from the school, and Paterno was fired and subsequently died. There isn’t another high-ranking Penn State official – a decision-maker – left from that regime. So my question would be, Why should the current people in place, in addition to Penn State’s student body, fans and current players, be punished for the heinous acts of others?

Was there, or is there, an irrational view of the football program at Penn State? Is it over glorified? Probably. That’s the way college sports usually are. The Freeh report says that “one of the most challenging of the tasks confronting the Penn State community is transforming the culture that permitted Sandusky’s behavior, as illustrated throughout this report, and which directly contributed to the failure of Penn State’s most powerful leaders to adequately report and respond to the actions of a serial sexual predator. It is up to the entire University community – students, faculty, staff, alumni, the Board, and the administration – to undertake a thorough and honest review of its culture. The current administration and Board of Trustees should task the University community, including students, faculty, staff, alumni, and peers from similar institutions and outside experts in ethics and communications, to conduct such a review. The findings from such a review may well demand further changes.”

Without question, Paterno’s football program was put on a pedestal, and he was allowed far too much leeway in making decisions about how Sandusky should be handled. It’s likely that he was given too much power in other Penn State affairs. He was the most powerful man on campus. But if there’s any college administration in America that’s going to make sure their coach doesn’t have too much power now, it’s going to be Penn State. Like Ohio State, where Urban Meyer will be scrutinized because of Jim Tressel’s indiscretions, and Oklahoma, where Barry Switzer’s lack of control are never forgotten, and USC, where Lane Kiffin works in the shadow of Pete Carroll’s infractions, the Penn State program, and its head coach, will have to live with the constraints of scrutiny brought on by Paterno.

Paterno’s legacy hasn’t just been tarnished. It has been destroyed. His statue in Happy Valley should come down. The chilling entry from the Freeh report that causes me the most trouble is this one, from the 2001 portion of the timeline: “Mike McQueary reports the assault to Paterno on Saturday, February 10; Paterno tells McQueary, ‘you did what you had to do. It’s my job now to figure out what we want to do’.” What we want to do? No, there was something Paterno had to do, too, and he didn’t. Rather than report a serial pedophile to authorities, or make sure that his superiors reported him, Paterno was the one who made the suggestion that they shouldn’t report Sandusky.

The Freeh report concluded that “One of the most challenging tasks confronting the University community – and possibly the most important step in ensuring that the other recommended reforms are effectively sustained, and that public confidence in the University and its leadership is restored – is an open, honest, and thorough examination of the culture that underlies the failure of Penn State’s most powerful leaders to respond appropriately to Sandusky’s crimes.”

The way to restore public confidence is to have an administration that makes transparency a requirement, that makes part of its mission to protect those who can’t protect themselves. To engender public confidence, the head coach should take the lead against child abuse, and the University should support his efforts with every resource available. To restore and build public confidence, a football team can be a wonderful tool to restore the faith of the public in central Pennsylvania. Penn State would be foolish to shut down its football program. Football can and should be a huge part of the solution, of the healing process. Shutting it down would only cause more pain and anguish for everyone associated with Penn State.