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When power corrupts: Penn State struggles with tarnished legacy

Penn State awaits a new school year, and a fresh start, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

By Chris DufresneThe Los Angeles Times / July 29, 2012

A Penn State University student walks across campus in front of Old Main on main campus.

Gene J. Puskar/AP/File


Los Angeles

Welcome back after the off-season from hell.

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Penn State’s torturous timeline, spanning from last November to last week, cast a pall over the sport that could have hardly been fathomed this time last year.

Jerry Sandusky’s pathetic mug shot, the Freeh Report, Joe Paterno’s eradicated legacy and NCAA President Mark Emmert’s recitation Monday of unprecedented sanctions have left a football nation dazed and confused.

“In one form or fashion it has affected us,” Commissioner Jim Delany said in his opening statements this week at Big Ten media days.

The Aug. 30 opening bell can’t get here soon enough as we eagerly anticipate the return to trivial pursuits. Before we move on, though, we reflect.

What happened here? What happens now?

The lasting take-away of Penn State is biblically obvious: The consolidation of power in the hands of a few, over time, is poisonous.

Lord Acton, the historian and moralist, opined in another century: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton’s next line, not as often repeated, is “great men are almost always bad men.”

Nowhere is it easier for power to corrupt than in the upstairs office of a powerful football coach. The thirst for victory, combined with money, combined with alma mater mania, has elevated conquering coaches to kings.

The reason Penn State’s insular circle thought they could conceal secrets and handle problems internally is because they always had.

Paterno’s avuncular “JoePa” public persona, philanthropy and win-loss record provided cover for more ruthless, pragmatic, day-to-day operations.

Power corrupted at incomparable levels at Penn State, but it also corrupted Jim Tressel at Ohio State, and maybe Pete Carroll at USC.

“No one program, no one person, no matter how popular, no matter how successful, can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution,” Commissioner Mike Slive said at the Southeastern Conference’s recent media days.

No one would disagree, yet some would also note a school in his king-maker conference, Alabama, practices the custom of erecting a statue of each coach who has won a national football championship.

Nick Saban, two-time Bowl Championship Series winner in Tuscaloosa, walks by his bust every day on the way to work.

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