The Worst of the Worst at Penn State

There’s no silver lining to this Penn State scandal, and its effect will be long-lasting, as Billy explains.

By Billy Reed

A Roman Catholic, Joe Paterno knew about the scandal that shook the international church to its foundation. One after another, over a period of years, all over America and several other nations, tortured souls stepped out of the darkness to accuse priests of sexual abuse. Many filed lawsuits and collected big payments that did little to heal the emotional scars left by the shocking betrayal of sacred trust.

While all this was developing, the Penn State football coach, a cultural icon because of his longevity at the top of his profession, also knew that serious allegations of the same kind of abuse had been levied against John Sandusky, his longtime friend and former assistant. Another assistant had reported seeing Sandusky molesting a young boy in the shower room at the Penn State football complex.

Incomprehensibly, Paterno’s reaction was to pass the buck to his athletics director and wash his hands of it. He either had learned nothing from the Catholic priests’ scandal or he didn’t grasp the gravity of the crime in his program. And make no mistake — it was a crime of the worst sort, far more serious than the NCAA rules violations that recently have rocked the football programs at Ohio State, Miami, Southern Cal, and other bastions of high education.

In the end, Paterno got what he deserved. So did Penn State president Graham Spanier. For abdicating their responsibilities to the university and to society at large, for placing the football program and Paterno’s legacy above simple human decency, both were fired Wednesday night by the university’s board of trustees.

The announcement touched off an angry and sometimes violent reaction on campus, where students rallied to Paterno’s support. To him, he was the venerated “Joe Pa,” and now, in retrospect, isn’t that nickname ironic? Just as some of the holy fathers of the Catholic church were exposed as sexual predators, so was “Joe Pa,” the father figure of college football, exposed as an enabler of child molestation.

Naturally, given Paterno’s stature in the football world, his dismissal drew far more attention than the firing of the president. But more than a statement about how athletics has come to distort the values at even the best universities, the firing of Spanier is really the more important. For the first time, a president has lost his job — and his reputation — because of athletics. In the highest offices of campus administration buildings around the nation, presidents are taking a new, hard look at their own athletics departments.

In the phantasmagoric world of big-time college sports, where coaches are paid more than $4 million a year to win games, presidents always have managed to distance themselves from their coaches when scandals erupt. But that may no longer be the case — and it shouldn’t be. Maybe now, because of Penn State and Paterno, hypocritical presidents finally will be forced to deal with the excesses that, through something akin to benign neglect, they’ve allowed to take root and fester in their athletics department.

If the Penn State board of trustees really wanted to shake up the establishment and strike a blow for perspective, it would forfeit Saturday’s game to Nebraska — yes, I realize the Big Ten title may be on the line — and open the stadium for three hours of prayer, meditation, reflection, education, and counseling. Say the hell with TV money and football, just for a day, and ponder the circumstances that brought Paterno and the university to such a sorry place.

The students who rallied so fiercely to Paterno’s support need to be reminded that some of Sandusky’s alleged victims may now be more or less their age. Instead of chanting “Joe Pa,” they need to recite a few “Our fathers” and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That’s not a stretch. How many kids have gone through Penn State’s football camps — and Sandusky’s organization for children — the last 10 or 15 years?

Considering that Penn State has an endowment of almost $2 billion, you can bet that lawyers already are hard at work looking for victims willing to file lawsuits against the  university and its employees, Paterno and Sandusky. But the cost in dollars, vast as it could conceivably be, is a pittance compared to the loss of credibility, dignity, and reputation.

Like the Catholic church, Penn State will survive. But the stain will never quite be washed completely away. This is the way it should be when men who pretend to be moral and spiritual leaders betray the sacred responsibility of protecting the children entrusted to their care.