On Monday, Pennsylvania State University, better known as Penn State, surrendered to a consent decree imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that fined the school $60 million, voided all the football team’s victories since 1998, banned the team from postseason bowl games for four years and reduced the number of scholarships it could offer prospects from 25 to 15.
In addition, the Big 10 Conference said Penn State forfeits its share of post-season revenues, estimated to be about $14 million. The $70 million in fines levied by the NCAA and Big Ten conference will go to programs to protect children and combat child abuse.
The NCCA’s hammer dropped in the wake of Jerry Sandusky’s June 22 conviction on 45 of 48 counts of sexual crimes against children and the report less than a month after the verdicts by former FBI director, Louis Freeh.
Penn State’s Board of Trustees hired Freeh to investigate what the heck happened in Happy Valley, as Centre County, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State, was affectionately referred to before a hell mouth swallowed it up.
In case you just fell to earth, Jerry Sandusky is a former Penn State football coach and longtime friend and associate of former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. Paterno died last January, but not before he saw everything he built sullied by the cries of innocent children who had come back to haunt him as adults seeking justice.
Sandusky used his stature as a Penn State football VIP and the allure of Penn State football to bait his victims, at least one whom was younger than 10, into showers and dark corners at training facilities frequented by Penn State coaches, staff and Paterno himself.
On at least two occasions, and likely more, Paterno, the athletic department and the school’s highest administrators were told about incidents of graphic child abuse. Their collective response was to do more than nothing: It was to obfuscate, veil and enable Sandusky to keep preying just so that Penn State football wouldn’t suffer guilt by association and the bad PR that would go with it.
The NCAA did the right thing by imposing its own brand of justice upon Penn State football. It just didn’t go far enough.
Of course, its guilt is much deeper than that, and the PR couldn’t be any worse. On the day the sanctions were announced, Penn State removed from outside Beaver Stadium the statue of Joe Paterno, prior to Monday the winningest coach in college football history.
It’s been a steep fall for Saint Joe, for the school itself and for a football program that was once thought to reflect the university’s values of excellence and integrity. When announced by steady-handed NCAA president Mark Emmert, the penalties were greeted with both quiet acceptance and howls of outrage. Some called the punishment “knee-jerk” and “an overreaction” and legally unfounded.
How do you overreact to at least 14 years of serial child rape under the noses of, and aided and abetted by, the most powerful people on campus—the football coach, the athletic director, the school’s vice president and president? And while criminal investigations into negligence and possible cover up are ongoing (Joe Paterno would certainly be under investigation were he alive), the NCAA did the right thing by imposing its own brand of justice upon Penn State football.
It just didn’t go far enough.
Penn State loomed large over Mount Lebanon, a suburb of football-mad Pittsburgh, PA, about three hours from Happy Valley, where I grew up. The upright sons and daughters here aspired to matriculate at Penn State. It was our Michigan, or Berkeley even (just not as fey!), an outstanding state-supported academic institution.
The Grand Experiment, Paterno called it, flaunting himself and his program as the exception to the seedy rule of college football, where teams cheated, lowered standards, and paid kids to attend. The team’s motto: Success With Honor.
When Penn State won the 1987 Fiesta Bowl and national championship by beating the University of Miami Hurricanes, whose players and program frequently appeared in the police blotters, it seemed to vindicate timeless values: Hard work over shortcuts. Sweat over steroids. Books over bullets.
Our good rustbelt kids couldn’t be bullied by those bad boys. “We were a team that couldn’t be intimidated, and that’s what Miami liked to do to other players,” linebacker Pete Giftopoulos told sportswriter Dan O’Sullivan. “How are you going to intimidate a bunch of steel-town kids from Pittsburgh, Ohio, Pennsylvania? You just can’t do that.”
Once, when asked about retiring, Paterno famously quipped that he couldn’t or else college football “would be left to the Jackie Sherrills [University of Pittsburgh] and Barry Switzers [Oklahoma University].”
Penn State was Rocky Balboa versus Clubber Lang, the U.S. versus the Evil Empire. It was American exceptionalism on the gridiron.
But American exceptionalism long ago became a smokescreen to cover any honest attempts at reflection with a cloud of entitlement. Pilotless drones drop bombs on women and children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan… but it’s collateral damage for the greater good that only America has the moral compass to navigate.
Similarly, reported child rapes in 1998 and again in 2001, rapes that were systematically planned and executed by a predator using Penn State football as candy for fatherless kids, were apparently viewed by Paterno and his administration cronies as collateral damage in the Grand Experiment. (One of many great tragedies here is that the athletic director, vice president and president of the school were little more than Paterno cronies.)
Penn State needs to ban its own football program and for a generation at least, which is how long it turned away from what was going on under the banner of the Grand Experiment.
Against the howls not to swallow the NCAA’s strong medicine and the calls for legal challenges to the sanctions, Penn State’s current president, Rodney Erickson, said that surrender was a better alternative to the “death penalty” Emmert had promised if Penn State didn’t comply. So far, only a handful of programs have faced the death penalty—suspension—primarily for gambling or recruiting violations. Priorities, priorities.
“We had our backs to the wall on this,” Penn State president Rodney Erickson, said. “We did what we thought was necessary to save the program.”
But the school didn’t save the football program. In dodging the death penalty, it signed its death certificate. Penn State football, even if it stumbles on in compliance with these sanctions, will continue to exist only in ignominy and mediocrity long after the decree has been fulfilled. And the school’s legacy will be that of a once-proud university that sacrificed children on the altar of Penn State football.
The only way to avoid that legacy is for the school to administer to itself. Getting rid of Paterno's strange, self-mythologizing statue is but a small start. Stronger action, not just accepting the strong judgments of athletic associations and juries, is called for.
Penn State needs to ban its own football program and for a generation at least, which is how long it turned away from what was going on during the Grand Experiment. Only then would Penn State, the greater Penn State, the Pennsylvania State University, have a chance to regain its soul and win with honor once again. Whether or not that ever takes place on the football field again is trivial and beside the point.
Such bold action would be as exceptional as it would be unlikely. Penn State has shown it’s not very good at standing up to bullies.
With its legacy of child rape, will Penn State ever again win with honor? Did it ever? Leave your thoughts in COMMENTS.
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Joe Donnelly is an award-winning journalist and short story writer based in Los Angeles. He is cofounder and editor of Slake: Los Angeles, the bestselling, award-winning city journal. Email Joe | TakePart.com