As a college football fan, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least have some thoughts on the biggest scandal ever to hit college sports.
I remember when this first started to surface last year. I was very cautious at the time as everyone around seemed to be out for a pound of flesh. I generally try to avoid mobs and witch hunts - what I most wanted was to let the investigations play out, and find out who knew what and when did they know it. Because only once we know the facts of a case can we truly sit in judgement.
Well, now we know the facts, and it’s worse than I could have ever imagined.
Now, I haven’t read the Freeh report - I really haven’t had time (or desire) to digest a 227 page report detailing the actions of a child molester and the people who enabled him, even after they knew. But the report is the probably the single most damning thing ever to land on a college athletic program. It eclipses Kentucky’s point-shaving in the 50s. It eclipses Louisiana-Lafayette’s academic shenanigans in the 70s. And it most definitely eclipses SMU’s “Pony Excess” in the 80s.
This is, without a doubt, the worst, most rotten thing I could possibly imagine. I don’t think this would have even been imaginable 15 years ago. And yet, here we are. All of those cases pale in comparison to what happened at Penn State.
As the report details, the problems at Penn State were wider than just the football program. Many, many people, from the President down to janitors, knew what was going on … but nobody said anything. A culture of silence and, more importantly, a reverence for athletics beyond all reason, pervaded everything that happened in State College. Nobody would go against, or risk threatening, the almighty sacred golden calf that was the Penn State football program. For all intents and purposes, Penn State football and Joe Paterno were sacrosanct and any attempt to confront them would elicit the highest orders of outrage.
What happened to those kids was terrible - and the justice system will see to it that those responsible are held to account for their crimes, as will the completely justified lawsuits which are sure to follow. But there are some other points surrounding this whole thing that I think are worthy of pondering here as well.
For the longest time, I held Joe Paterno and Penn State as the paragon of stability that all athletic programs should strive for. I mean, here was a guy that was head coach for 45 years. In that same time period, Auburn had six coaches and Alabama had eight. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if that same stability allowed a culture to flourish that enabled something like this to happen. Is it good for one person to be allowed to accumulate so much power and hold it, unchecked, for so long? Would a few changes in administration have helped deter this situation?
I would like to think so and, in truth, it may. But think the problem is bigger than Penn State and cuts right to the heart of the worship of college athletics in the United States. This same “athletics can do no wrong” culture can be seen at many major Division I schools. I mean, in my heart I would love to believe that something like this could never happen at Auburn. But I also cannot discount the power that the athletic department holds. The same can be said for Alabama, LSU, Oregon (whose program I think is absolutely rotten to the core on so many levels) and so many programs. Can I honestly believe that a janitor who sees something like that janitor at Penn State saw and has to decide between his job and reporting will do the right thing? And even if they keep their job, would have to constantly be on the lookout for some crazed “fan” much like we hear every week on Finebaum to do something insane?
That’s the thing about this whole sad situation that I don’t think is getting enough discussion. This scandal is an indictment of the worship of athletics that pervades colleges across the US. Penn State just took that same worship that happens at every Division I program and turned the knob to 11. As a result, a culture of silence allowed a child molester to run rampant for years with the full knowledge of many people, who placed covering up for the name of the Nittany Lions above doing the right thing.
This. Has. Got. To. Stop.
The thing that is so damning about all of this is that it’s not the oh so loved “lack of institutional control” that we usually hear about when it comes to sports scandals. In this case, the institution was in such complete control of every aspect of Nittany Lion culture, that no one would dare go against it. This is unique, uncharted waters for college athletics.
Now, I don’t know what the NCAA will do, if anything. Frankly, my opinion of the NCAA is right down there with the UN in terms of being able to do anything useful. But if there’s any justice in the world, the NCAA will drop the hammer on Penn State and end the program. At least for a couple of years. And if the NCAA doesn’t do it, Penn State should, for once, do the right thing and pull the plug themselves. Shut everything down, cool everything off and, in a few years, return with a new focus on what is really important. Because even though all the people responsible are gone, the culture is still in place. You have to change the culture.
Yes, I said it. I’m talking the Death Penalty. A slap on the wrist - a few scholarships lost, a TV or bowl ban - would be insulting. To do anything less in this situation is to condone the very attitude that allowed Jerry Sandusky to molest children for years. A message needs to be sent, to universities and fans across the nation that there is a line of acceptable behavior and culture when it comes to college athletics, and that Penn State flew over that line at supersonic speeds. There must be accountability.
SMU paid some played. Kentucky shaved some points. But at Penn State, a culture of silence and reverence for athletics enabled a child molester to go unchecked, with full knowledge of the administration, for years. If that’s not worthy of the ultimate penalty, the entire NCAA is s sham and should itself be disbanded.
For the average college football fan, this should be yet another sobering reminder of the dark places that operate at some of alma maters. For as much as we would like to believe in the purity of sport, this scandal - perhaps the saddest and worst ever - indicates of the depths to which evil can spread.