After forty-six seasons coaching at Penn State University, coach Joe Paterno now faces a crisis that could burn the storied football program to the ground. And if recent charges are true, his legacy deserves to burn along with it. For those who haven’t heard, longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky, 67, who coached the vaunted Nittany Lions defense for twenty-three years, has been charged with forty sex crimes against boys dating from 1994 to 2005. All of the minors were under the care of Sandusky’s charity for impoverished youth, The Second Mile Foundation, which Sandusky founded in 1977. As the grand jury presentment stated: “Through The Second Mile, Sandusky had access to hundreds of boys, many of whom were vulnerable due to their social situations.” Sandusky is denying all charges through his attorney, but the grand jury report is a damning and detailed account of a man exercising his power and authority to rape young boys.
On one level, it’s a horror story we’ve heard before: vulnerable children become targets for the very people trusted with their care. But this case is far, far worse, because it could have been stopped in time to spare future victims. It could have been stopped, but it wasn’t because the image of Joe Paterno Nittany Lion Football was deemed more important than the children at risk.
The grand jury summation describes one scene where Sandusky was caught raping 10-year-old “Victim Number 2” in the Penn State football team shower. The graduate student who witnessed it was “distraught” and “traumatized.” Did he go to the police? No, he went directly to Joe Paterno’s home. Paterno immediately turned the matter over to athletic director Tim Curley and, for reasons I don’t understand, Gary Schultz, the senior vice president of finance and business. Curley and Schultz conferred and acted. According to the grand jury report, they sat Sandusky down and said that he could no longer use Penn State football facilities while accompanied by Second Mile children. That’s it. Pennsylvania state law requires Curley, Schultz and Paterno to have reported the charges to the police. They didn’t. (Curley and Schultz are being charged with perjury and obstruction. Paterno is not.)
Curley even admitted to the grand jury that he “advised Sandusky that he was prohibited from bringing youth onto the Penn State campus from that point forward.” Yet as Deadspin.com reported, even this “punishment” was fictional. As late as 2009, Sandusky was on campus running a sleep-away camp for boys as young as nine years old. One alleged victim told the grand jury that Sandusky brought him to a Penn State preseason practice in 2007—a full five years after Paterno was made aware of the shower rape. This is why it’s hard to take seriously Paterno’s statement on Sunday, where he said, “If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers.”
We are past prayer and into the realm of criminal negligence (and the major players are circling the wagons. Sunday night, after an emergency meeting of the Penn State Board of Trustees, Curley requested to be placed on administrative leave so he could devote himself full-time to his defense. Schultz also announced he would be retiring, effective immediately). I agree with the Washington Post’s Mike Wise, who wrote, “They would all be party to a worse crime than any crooked, pay-for-play booster at Miami, Ohio State or even SMU ever committed: guilty of protecting a program before a child.” But at the same time I would argue that the connective tissue between benign booster scandals and this monstrous state of affairs are more substantial than people want to admit. It’s connected to the Bowl Championship Series, “conference realignment” and all the ways in which college football has morphed over the last generation into a multibillion-dollar big business. This isn’t about Sandusky. This is about about a culture that says the football team must be defended at all costs: a culture where the sexual assault of a 10-year-old is reported to Paterno before the police.
This is what happens when a football program becomes the economic and spiritual heartbeat of an entire section of a state. The Nittany Lions football regularly draws 100,000 fans to Happy Valley. They also produce $50 million in pure profit for the University every year and has been listed as the most valuable team in the Big 10 conference. Another economic report held that every Penn State game pumps $59 million into the local economy: from hotels to kids selling homemade cookies by the side of the road. It’s no wonder that Paterno is revered. He took a football team and turned it into an economic life raft for a university and a region. When something becomes that valuable, a certain mindset kicks in. Protect the team above all over concerns. Protect Joe Pa. Protect Nittany Lions football. Protect the brand. In a company town, your first responsibility is to protect the company.
Penn State has never been an “outlaw program.” It’s what every school aspires to become. Think about that. Every school aspires to be the kind of place where football is so valuable that children can become collateral damage. If the allegations are true, if the school in fact knew this was going on, then the program should be shut down. If the allegations are true, Joe Paterno should be instructed to take his forty-six years and 409 wins and leave in disgrace. It’s tragic that it’s come to this for a legend like Paterno. But it’s even more tragic that protecting his legend mattered more than stopping a child-rapist in their midst. Damn Sandusky. Damn Paterno. Damn Penn State. But above all, damn the fact that the billion-dollar logic of big-time college football leads to decisions as venal as those made in Happy Valley.