The child-sex scandal at Penn State University could be called “the single biggest story in the history of college sports,” as one veteran sports columnist has done.
But in another sense the grand jury indictment alleging that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was a sexual predator has little to do with athletics. Unlike steroid use or recruiting violations, this scandal isn’t about endangering the health and well-being of student athletes or gaining a competitive advantage.
It is a sports story, though, when it raises questions of whether the Penn State football program – and its venerable head coach, Joe Paterno – were protected from proper scrutiny because the program was too valuable to be subjected to scandal.
Mr. Paterno’s position among the nation’s coaches can’t be overestimated. He was known for running a football program that was both “clean” and successful. A statue of him on campus describes him as “Educator – Coach – Humanitarian.” He contributed millions of dollars to and led fundraising efforts for a library on campus that bears his name.
An assistant coach has testified to a grand jury that in 2002 he observed Mr. Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the showers of the athletic facility. The assistant told Paterno what he had seen and Paterno duly reported the conversation to his superior at the university.
But the seriousness of the alleged offense calls into question Paterno’s judgment at the time. Didn’t he have a moral responsibility, if not a legal one, to pursue the matter more vigorously?
Paterno, who just this season became the winningest coach in major college football history, showed how out of touch he was with the seriousness of the situation this week by offering to resign at the end of this year’s football season. The school’s board of trustees wisely decided to fire him now, along with the school’s president, to show that they were acting decisively to address a horrendous situation.
This isn’t the way anyone wanted to see Paterno’s career end. And the many good works he has done on behalf of his players and the Penn State community will remain a permanent part of his legacy.
But his tale is a cautionary one: Even a good man can make a bad decision, in this case one that may have allowed a child abuser to continue on when he could have been stopped.
The Penn State story heightens the concern that big-time college football has grown into a multimillion-dollar business that has lost its ethical footing. Instead of teaching moral lessons about the virtues of hard work, selflessness, and teamwork, it has proved to be a business where questionable actions are hidden in an effort to protect a “brand name.”
Sandusky has been charged with assaults on at least eight boys between 1994 and 2009, at least one on the campus itself. The boys, now young adults, who apparently were part of this tragedy deserve not only justice in the courtroom but the nation’s prayers. They need to, and can, know and feel that their purity as children of God has never been tainted.
“I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case. I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief,” Paterno said this week. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Penn State students have felt both anger at learning that their beloved coach has been shown to have feet of clay and shame at what has taken place on their campus. But they have the opportunity to be a positive force in finding a path forward for the university.
“Now, more than ever, students need to remember that we are Penn State,” a student editorial in the campus newspaper said this week. “When the leadership of our Alma Mater is shaky, students need to remember that we make this school what it is.... We need to be setting the bar, holding ourselves to the high moral and ethical standards that the university and its officials should have been for the past decade.”