Last week, I envisioned my first non-baseball column of the year as being fairly unremarkable, a way for me to buy time until a bigger and more exciting story came along. “Big,” yes. “Exciting,” not exactly. I’m referring, of course, to the ongoing scandal at Penn State, one that has shaken Happy Valley and the sports world to its very core.
As members of the student body rioted this week in response to the incident — or, more precisely, the firing of their legendary coach Joe Paterno — I wasn’t exactly sure where I stood. Former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had committed unfathomable atrocities against vulnerable young boys. That much was clear. Obviously, we were dealing with a psychopath, a man who had started his own charity, The Second Mile, solely for the purpose of gaining access to his prey. I had a much harder time, however, piecing together what had happened. Why hadn’t the abuse been reported much sooner? Did Sandusky silence his victims? Were there no witnesses, or was something more sinister afoot? And did the pathological actions of one man really warrant the firing of Penn State’s coach and university president and the arrest of its athletic director?
I will deal with Paterno first, my reproach of whom I will limit to calling his handling of the situation “disappointing.” Renowned for his career-long efforts to create a brand of football that was both winning and classy, the first of which he certainly accomplished, JoePa was placed in a difficult position. Reports allege that, in 2002, another assistant coach caught Sandusky in the act with a 10-year-old Second Mile boy in the team’s locker room and subsequently reported the incident to Paterno. The NCAA’s all-time winningest coach then informed athletic director Tim Curley; that was it. Paterno had not witnessed anything himself, but, given his ostensibly lofty moral goals for his program, one may have expected him to pursue this graphic allegation more tenaciously. There was also the 1998 incident involving “Victim 6,” whom Sandusky admitted to and apologized for touching inappropriately. Some suggest that this episode prompted Paterno to push Sandusky into retirement.
In other words, these sorts of accusations against Sandusky were not new, Paterno knew about them even then, and something was clearly amiss. Given this, Paterno should have been obliged to contact the authorities, and his failure to do so is an indication of shameful hypocrisy, if nothing else. In response to the frequently posed question of whether the scandal will tarnish Paterno’s legacy, I say: I hope so.
Still, as commenters all over the Internet are quick to point out, Paterno did nothing illicit: since he was not a witness, his legal obligations were minimal. Maybe we should even afford him a small measure of forgiveness for his final public statement on the issue: “I wish I had done more.” Weightier invective should be reserved for Curley, President Graham Spanier and finance director/police overseer Gary Schultz. These were the men in real positions of power, those who should have had the ability to see beyond football to the well-being of Sandusky’s targets. After the 2002 witness came forward, these three decided simply to ban Second Mile children from the team’s locker room. Their failure to, at the very least, ban Sandusky himself from the locker room suggests a calculated unwillingness to damage the lore of Sandusky or the program. To confound this, Schultz and Curley lied to a grand jury earlier this month about the report against Sandusky, for which they were hit with federal perjury charges. And see if this strikes you as a bit fishy: in 2005, the District Attorney who investigated the 1998 allegations (ultimately electing not to prosecute), Ray Gricar, disappeared without a trace and is presumed dead. Even if the last ghostly detail proves to be coincidental, there remains no doubt that Curley, Spanier and Schultz engaged in a systematic cover-up of the evidence. Their first priority was to guard their institution’s reputation rather than to concern themselves with the small matter of the predator in their midst. They operated with cowardice, a total lack of remorse and perhaps even outright malice.
As the full force of the law descends on these three and Sandusky, however, I will direct the full force of my words at one more target: the culture surrounding the high-profile nature of Div. I sports. After World War II, we belittled the Germans for their complicity to Hitler, but eventually we understood that what happened in the Third Reich could have happened anywhere. To make an anachronistic and rather disproportionate comparison, the same is true here. Penn State’s handling of the situation was reprehensible, but Curley, Spanier and Schultz are hardly the only ones capable of such treachery. The cover-up is indicative of a larger problem: the high cash flow involved in DI sports has, regrettably, corporatized them.
The concept of brand loyalty, once unthinkable in an academic context, has become as much of an issue for big universities as for professional sports teams or, to be blunter, WalMart. The common American sports fan regards these schools — yes, schools, profiting from the performances of unpaid undergraduates — as larger-than-life entities, and with so much market competition, he demands nothing less than perfection from them. Public relations slip-ups, in addition to hurting alumni endowments, now carry implications for ever-fickle television fan bases, the schools’ major sources of exposure and income. We demand only to see an exciting 60 minutes of football; the high-ups know this, and they act accordingly. In short, what the public hears from behind the scenes is, now more than ever, a business decision. With the amount of money at stake, university officials find themselves playing the roles of corporate executives rather than, as intended, educators: the Penn State officials felt the need to lie in a case that was in no way worth it. And for what? Not to protect jobs, investors or entire markets, but simply to appeal to our willingness — no, our desire — to consume collegiate athletics as marketable products. We bristle now, but we, who will so happily protest “corporate greed” when it is convenient to us, fueled the fire in the first place. Did I mention that our outrage came just a tad too late for any of Sandusky’s victims?
I am not suggesting, of course, that any American with half a brain should go out and boycott the NCAA; consumption and choice are facts of middle-class American life from which one cannot reasonably shy away. In fact, to lay blame squarely on the consumer for the state of our sports culture would be downright foolish. Still, I offer this impassioned word to the wise, regardless of who, if anyone, is really at fault. When you turn on the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, remember the values system you are buying into.
I’ll reiterate the obvious: the athletes are unpaid. Donors: remember what you are paying for. And, to anyone who worships their favorite Div. I team: think of the janitor who, according to reports, witnessed yet another Sandusky assault in 2000 but failed to come forward, fearing he would lose his job. Our “institutions of higher learning” are meant to be temples of social liberality, freedom of expression and open-mindedness; is Penn. State’s secrecy the sort of thing to which they should aspire?