The future of a legendary coach, a storied football program, and the course of a university appear to be at stake as the fallout from the sexual-abuse allegations leveled at a former Penn State football coach grows.
Reports suggest that Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I football history and architect of Penn State's rise to national football prominence, could be forced out by the end of the week. Some public-relations experts don't see how university President Graham Spanier can keep his job, either.
Activists seeking to expose and combat sexual abuse say there are lessons to be learned from the story. But, to many, the allegations are so heinous that any attempt at moderate discussion – about what Mr. Paterno actually knew, about how universities should respond – seems almost impossible in the current climate.
“I really like to discuss issues that are debatable – issues where you can pick a side and defend it, where you can make an argument that a reasonable person might not agree with, but that they can understand,” says Bob Schneider, a professor of sports management at the State University of New York, Brockport, in an e-mail. “But I'm having a really hard time finding the other side on this one."
"It's pretty clear cut," he says. "The court of public opinion is going to have their say on this one. And it's not going to be kind to Paterno, to the president, or to anyone else involved with the situation at Penn State. Most people have kids. And they're not only flabbergasted by this incident, they are outraged."
According to an indictment, Jerry Sandusky, who served as Paterno’s defensive coordinator for 23 years before resigning in 1999, raped a young boy in the shower of the Penn State football complex in 2002. Police say he sexually abused eight young boys over 15 years from the late 1990s to 2009, a period that includes four years while on Penn State’s football staff.
A graduate student saw the alleged incident in the shower and reported it to Paterno, who in turn reported it to university officials, but no action was taken, according to the indictment. Paterno told a grand jury he had never been told the graphic details.
Both the athletic director, Tim Curley, and the vice president, Gary Schultz, have been charged with perjury and accused of failing to report the matter to state and county officials.
The fallout will stretch way beyond sports, says Louis Grossman of Public Relations Counselors, LLC, and a professor of public relations at Temple University in Philadelphia.
The university cancelled Paterno's weekly news conference Tuesday – a sign that "Joe Paterno will be forced to resign,” says Mr.Grossman, who thinks President Spanier will be forced out as well.
“There just doesn't seem any other way out of this PR crisis at this point," he says. "It will have a lasting impact not only on Penn State's football program, but also on how the university is run, and how all universities run their businesses.”
He suggests universities will become more vigilant in their hiring practices and their background checks into the private lives of their employees, especially highly visible employees of the athletic departments.
Some of these lessons can be helpful, says Mark Tatge, a professor of journalism at DePauw University .
“Anything that sheds light on this and where society should draw the line of what is appropriate and what isn’t is a good thing,” he says.
It’s not so much that sexual predation is on the rise, he says, but that the reporting of it has grown in the wake of the Roman Catholic Church's priest scandal.
“This is an issue that we’ve seen stretches beyond the chapel and then the boardroom and now the locker room,” says Mr. Tatge.
What is important is to take steps to address the problem, says Jarrod Chin of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.
“It’s too easy to look at this and say, ‘Well, Sandusky is just depraved,’ and it just so happened that this came out,” he says. “But this is a much more systemic problem happening to young people every day and needs to be addressed.”
He says studies have shown that one in four women and one in six men are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate college. In response, Sport in Society has developed a program called MVP (Mentors in Violence Protection), which trains coaches to be able to identify such abuses and communicate to young people what to do about it.
Says Mr. Chin: “We train our coaches in how to manipulate Xs and Os on a chalkboard, but next to nothing about the issue of sexual predators, and other violent offenders."