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.

Gene J. Puskar/AP/File
A Penn State University student walks across campus in front of Old Main on main campus.

Welcome back after the off-season from hell.

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.

A good rule of thumb is to never build a statue of anyone living, and rarely of anyone dead.

Someone recently suggested to Saban that the football coach at Alabama, dating to Bear Bryant, had potentially dangerous power.

“Well, you know, it’s not true if that’s the perception,” Saban said.

Penn State is a reminder, though, of why light needs to be shined into the dark corners of a democracy that loves tailgating.

Interestingly, the opposite is happening. Coaches with $5-million salaries have a virtual stranglehold over operations and players. Postgame locker rooms used to be open ; now they are closed. Player access to the media has become increasingly limited.

The narrative at most powerful programs is controlled, with puppet strings, by the head coach. Anyone think this will change?

For years, the NCAA operated in the catacombs, revealing about as much of itself as Hoover’s FBI. The NCAA was also once ruled a monopoly by the Supreme Court, which is the reason it lost control of Division I football.

The NCAA this week become more dictatorial — they claim it’s only temporary! — when the organizational body gave Emmert unprecedented power to expedite an unprecedented case. It then bypassed due process to move swiftly and harshly against Penn State.

Machiavelli would have applauded.

What exactly, though, hath the NCAA wrought? Time will decide whether it sufficiently crippled Penn State, or mobilized it. Did it spare the school the “death penalty” and a TV ban to protect its own fiduciary interests?

Football-crazed powers not killed by the NCAA tend to defy it. Miami and Alabama won national titles within a decade of so-called “punitive” sanctions. USC is poised to compete for a national title in the third year of major probation.

Penn State Coach Bill O’Brien, on a conference call this week, outlined a potential artery weakness in the NCAA’s actions.

“They let us play football, and let us be on TV,” O’Brien said. “We can play football in a beautiful stadium in front of passionate fans I understand we can’t go to a bowl game, I really do. But how many bowl games are played in front of 108,000 fans? We play six or seven bowl games a year right here.”

Because it balked at putting Penn State out of business, the NCAA is in the unique position of actually needing one of its member institutions to fail. It also set the bar for egregiousness lower than the booster payouts that led to Southern Methodist’s “death penalty” in 1987. The NCAA meted out to Penn State one more year of probation than it gave Caltech.

What if Penn State doesn’t fail? Are there unintended consequences we have not yet contemplated? Might one of those be the wholesale, unseemly poaching of Nittany Lions players?

The answers await us all.

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