Penn State: 409 Wins – At What Cost?

By: Casey Jenkins

How? Why?  These are the questions that have been raised by the victims, parents, fans, players and media concerning the events surrounding Penn State’s recent child abuse scandal.  Jerry Sandusky, dubbed “Saint Sandusky” after he quit his coaching job to dedicate himself to his charity in 1999, allegedly molested young boys who were brought into his life because they needed a role model.  They looked up to him.  These boys were especially vulnerable because they were introduced to Sandusky through The Second Mile, which the organization describes as a “statewide non-profit organization for children who need additional support and who would benefit from positive human contact.”  Sandusky started the charity for at-risk youth and remained its CEO until 2010 when the investigation became serious.  This story is tragic without any additional circumstances but it became unthinkable when the grand jury report revealed how much university officials knew about what was going on and how little they did to stop it.  Suddenly the looming question became “how could they?”

Penn State fired legendary coach Joe Paterno, fondly referred to as JoePa by the football world, on Wednesday November 10.  After 46 years as head coach, he recently reached a record-breaking 409 wins, the most in the nation for the top level of college football.  Sadly, that record comes with some heartbreaking costs.  His mid-season termination came less than two weeks after his 409th win.  If the allegations prove to be true, poor leadership and lack of basic morality at the university’s top levels failed to protect these children and destroyed the already tarnished reputation of college athletics.  Even if the allegations are false, enough was not done to investigate and make sure that the children were safe after suspicions arose.  409 wins and his subsequent downfall cost Joe Paterno and Penn State an almost saintly reputation, and more importantly, the psychological and physical well being of innocuous and susceptible children.

Jerry Sandusky was Paterno’s assistant coach for more than 20 years until he left abruptly in 1999 after an investigation into allegations of Sandusky sexually abusing young boys.  As previously mentioned, Sandusky and the university made it seem as though he wanted to turn his focus to The Second Mile at that time.  He continued to be a part of the university community despite these warning signs and had continuous exposure to kids through The Second Mile.  A short three years later, an administrative assistant witnessed an incident of abuse and reported it to Paterno because it occurred in the Penn State football locker room.  Jerry Sandusky was still very much a part of the Penn State culture after his resignation despite the possibility of foul play.  The grand jury report says that the administrative assistant, Mike McQueary, saw Sandusky raping a boy about age ten in the locker room showers.  Paterno reported this disturbing news to the athletic administrators and all of them did nothing to see to it that these children were protected and that the injustices halt.  The university merely took Sandusky’s locker room keys away.  Rape is a heinous crime, especially when involving children, and all that they did was take his locker room keys away?  It is unimaginable to most people to see something like this and not make sure that justice be done.  Suddenly the question asked becomes, “Why does football cloud what so many people easily declare such a crystal clear judgment call?

Those with an allegiance to Penn State, like many university fans amid the plethora of athletic scandals this year, have jumped to their leader’s defense citing the fulfillment of his “legal duty” and his “positive impact” on Penn State University over the course of his coaching tenure as though it excuses him from his actions, or lack thereof.  They cry out to defend his innocence and point the finger at the media for demonizing their fallen hero.  The night that Paterno was fired, students held a vigil in front of his home as if he were the victim here.  For lack of better words, are you kidding me?  What a slap in the face to the victims and their families that a vigil be held for the very powerful man in the community that could have put an end to this horror and saved some of these victims.  He was not just the football coach who fulfilled his duty by telling the athletic director what he heard; he was the face of Penn State stepping into the shadows at a time when he should have put himself in the spotlight.  He might be in the clear criminally, but morally he was way off base.  This situation is not the same or even close to Ohio State’s “scandal” earlier this year, in which coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign after keeping quiet about some inappropriate earnings of his athletes.  Are Penn State fans truly that blinded by sports that they cannot see the difference between these tortured children and a college quarterback profiting from some sports memorabilia?  Paterno does not belong on any pedestal.

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand the allegiance to your alma mater or even extreme pride in a team that you merely grew up admiring.  I am as big of a sports fan as the next person and, truth be told, when one of these scandals come to light I admittedly breathe a sigh of relief that it is not my beloved Kansas Jayhawks under scrutiny.  Most universities have seemingly lost sight of the academic institutional values that they are founded on because they are driven by forces bigger and stronger: money and numbers.  409 wins, 46 seasons, 96,000 students, $4 billion budget, ticket sales, bowl games, national championships, are all numbers and status symbols that have all been thrown around in the wake of this tragedy as though they matter at all in the course of the events that occurred.  Joe Paterno was the face of Penn State and could have put an end to this and demanded justice at the snap of a finger.  He could have called police himself or approached The Second Mile.  While it is understandable that universities want to be the best and most prosperous in the ever-competing world of NCAA, when will enough be enough?  When will the coach that is honorable be more admired than the coach that puts football above all else, including the dignity that his players and institution place in his hands?

These leaders, Joe Paterno in particular, failed the young victims here and let down a community of devoted fans.  It is my hope that coaches or anyone else that is idolized realize through this what it means to be a true leader: to speak up in a situation where they see injustice being done and to put aside their own fears and agendas to do the right thing.  That is what is missing in so many collegiate athletic programs today.  As Grantland’s Charles Pierce put it best, if the crime and cover-up ‘‘blights Joe Paterno’s declining years, that’s too bad.  If that takes a chunk out of the endowment, hold a damn bake sale.  If that means Penn State spends some time being known as the university where a child got raped, that’s what happens when you’re a university where a child got raped.’’

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