The Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the fallout from it, has entrenched itself as the darkest moment in sports history. While some have tried to disassociate the scandal from the sport and the Penn State football program, it is impossible. As hard as it may be to admit, especially for Penn State fans, this was a Penn State scandal. If the initial wave that hit in November wasn't enough to make this clear, the revelations of the Freeh report erase any doubt.
While there are, unfortunately, people like Sandusky everywhere, in all professions and positions of power, the football culture at Penn State was a perfect atmosphere for allowing him to hide his crimes. Penn State football is more than an interest or a hobby in and around Happy Valley, it is a way of life. It's one thing for this to be true of the fan base, but this obsession with Penn State's football culture existed, and thrived, at the top of the University's chain of command. Penn State, under the guidance of Joe Paterno, had carved out such a high level success on the field, and an image of respect and virtue off the field, that it intoxicated the entire community. Penn State was so unwilling to allow anything to even threaten to tarnish this image, even if only for a few weeks, that the four most powerful men on campus conspired to cover up the Sandusky situation for at least 14 years.
In an ESPN.com post by Adam Rittenberg, Penn State president Rodney Erickson discusses the football program's role in this situation:
"This particular tragedy happened within the football program, but it could have happened in many other places."
This simply isn't true.
Penn State is a very strong academic university, but no part of it has the national reputation or the clout of the football program. If Jerry Sandusky was a prominent, nationally recognized economics professor, he would have been fired at the first sign of any inappropriate conduct with a child. The school may have had a black eye for a few days, but ultimately those in charge would have done the right thing, and the public wouldn't hold the actions of one person against the whole school.
However, he was not a professor. He was a prominent, key member of the altruistic football program, and the powers that be decided that it was not worth risking any possible smudge on the perfect picture that was Penn State football.
When you put image in front of morality and reality, you have a major problem.
Obviously, this cover up has backfired in a big way, and the what was a veritable doomsday scenario bandied about in November has become reality. One would think that this may be enough to make the Board of Trustees and new president cut ties with the entirety of the old regime, including the late Paterno. However, there are still debates about what to do with his statue outside of Beaver Stadium, and whether or not to honor him. Many can cite the good he did for the school and all of the money that he donated for the campus library among other things, but Paterno had almost infinite resources at Penn State. Cutting a check to build a building is a nice gesture, but it requires no real hard decision making or courage.
Jay Bilas put it very well on Twitter:
Penn State was a conspiracy of cowards. If just one person does right and reports it, the conspiracy of silence falls apart. Cowards all.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) July 12, 2012
Paterno could have added to his legacy and become an actual hero. He could have prevented what ended up being a long string of child abuse.
While many Penn State fans and alumni have come forward and condemned the lack of action by Paterno and others, especially in light of the Freeh report, too many still have stars in their eyes for a man who they deemed infallible long ago. This lack of understanding for the sheer magnitude of the situation is a great argument for why Penn State needs to spend some time away from football. Whether or not that comes from the NCAA giving the school the "death penalty", a fall without major football, a fall filled with reflection and regrowth, could go a long way towards helping that community move past the Paterno era.
Happy Valley is not the only community to have an unhealthy obsession with its college sports programs, and as more money is added to the pot, in big time football especially, Penn State may become a cautionary tale for these other communities. We've seen things swept under the rug before to protect programs; the Lizzy Seeburg sexual assault case at Notre Dame serves as an example on a much smaller level. The Sandusky story isn't even the only transgression at Penn State that falls under this category. The Freeh report also described a 2007 campus brawl involving a number of football players that Paterno buried by using his limitless influence within the University.
College sports becomes big business more and more every day. It is naive to deny this fact. In order to keep things in check, we need to hold our administrators, our coaches, and our athletes to a higher standard. Without keeping level-headedness, we risk more schools devolving into madness when it comes to maintaining an image. If there is anything we as fans can take away from this Sandusky mess, it is that at the end of the day sports are always just going to be sports. Let's not turn them into something more significant than that.