The Penn State scandal is so disturbing that it’s hard to even write about. When I first heard Joe Paterno had been fired, I thought perhaps it was an overreaction on the part of Penn State’s board of trustees. But as I read about some of the details of the case, I quickly realized I was wrong. As it turns out, Paterno is a split legal hair away from being guilty of covering up a heinous crime spree that staggers the moral imagination of the average American.
As we all know by now, in 2002, assistant football coach Mike McQueary, then a graduate assistant at Penn State, allegedly saw defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in the locker-room shower. To McQueary’s credit, he immediately reported the incident to Coach Paterno.
However, one of the questions people are asking is: Should McQueary, who was then 28 years of age, have gone to the police instead of, or in addition to, telling Paterno? Probably. But I’m willing to stretch my moral slack cutter enough to believe that the youthful McQueary was probably panicked about witnessing such an unfathomable crime and rationalized that he had done his duty by reporting it to the head coach.
Paterno, in turn, reported the incident to Athletic Director Timothy Curley. The same question applies: Should Paterno have gone to the police instead of, or in addition to, telling Curley? Here I have a problem with cutting JoePa much slack.
At the time, Paterno was a 73-year-old prominent role model who had been the head of one of the most prestigious college football programs in the United States for nearly four decades. I’m at a loss to understand why he didn’t follow up, and follow up, and continue to follow up in an effort to find out what action was being taken against Sandusky. (According to the grand jury indictment of Sandusky, “it was within The Second Mile Program that Sandusky found his victims.” Sandusky founded the charity to help troubled youths.)
If Paterno did not follow up, he is an accomplice to the cover-up of a horrific crime. On the other hand, if he did follow up and was told that the university was not going to press charges against Sandusky, he had a moral obligation to take action on his own. And, again, if he did not take such action, he was guilty of repressing information about a serious crime.
Curley and Gary Schultz, Penn State’s senior vice president for finance and business, did not report the incident to the police, but did ban Sandusky from bringing children into the Penn State locker room. By definition, not notifying the authorities amounted to obstruction of justice, a felony that has put many a high-profile person behind bars.
The Penn State embarrassment brings back memories of another iconic football coach, Woody Hayes, who was fired from Ohio State University the morning after he shocked the sports world by punching a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl. What was different in the Hayes case, however, was that there was no crime charged and his inappropriate behavior was witnessed by a stadium full of fans and millions of television viewers.
The issue is much bigger than coaches like Paterno and Hayes, who believe that winning football games is the most important thing in life. The broader issue is the deification of college sports by millions of mindless fans, which sends a bad signal to students who are supposed to be focused on getting a good education.
A kid who gets straight A’s has to wonder why a guy who can run with a football is more deserving of a letter sweater than he is. I’m more impressed by a learning-challenged student who manages to rise above his learning deficits and graduate with a 3.0 GPA than a 7-footer who can dunk a basketball.
Personally, I don’t believe athletes should receive any kind of reward for their athletic accomplishments. But I do believe that students who excel at academics should be held up as role models by a university’s hierarchy. There’s nothing wrong with being a good athlete, but sports should be kept in proper perspective. Winning a football or basketball game is not a major accomplishment in the grand scheme of things.
I remember shaking my head in disgust when CBS News anchor Dan Rather opened one of his broadcasts in December 1999 by saying excitedly, “There’s joy once again at Columbine High School.” He then went on to tell how Columbine had won the Class 5A state football championship in Colorado.
The implication was that winning a football championship somehow made things right at Columbine. As usual, Rather got it completely wrong. The exaltation of jocks is a major part of the out-of-control bullying problem at schools like Columbine. The jubilation over the school’s football championship only perpetuated the “jocks rule” atmosphere that purportedly still prevails at that school.
I doubt it will ever happen, but I would like to see all sports scholarships eliminated and have the rosters of college athletic teams filled by grade-qualifying students. Sports played by real student athletes would bring in just as much money as the semiprofessional college teams we have today. If everyone is playing at a lower skill level, it looks pretty much the same as when super jocks are playing against each other on a higher level.
The Penn State tragedy and the broader issue of deifying college sports are really just symptoms of a much larger problem: We have discarded the certitudes and values that once made America the greatest country on Earth. Without certitudes and values, it’s easy for people to do unspeakable things such as looking the other way in order to protect a revered college football program. After all, the secular progressives have taught us that everything is relative.
May God be with those innocent kids who were sacrificed on the Happy Valley Football Altar. And may they all become wealthy as a result of the avalanche of lawsuits that is about to shake Penn State to its core.