Joe Paterno is dead and so is what was left of his good name, shredded to pieces by investigators who didn’t seem terribly impressed by anything the coach once did on Saturday afternoons.
Jerry Sandusky will spend what is left of the rest of his life in prison, paying for crimes so despicable they are hard to even comprehend. Some former Penn State administrators could be heading there, too. After Louis Freeh’s damning report, they might want to think twice about taking their chances before a jury of their peers.
The cult allowed to fester at State College has been exposed, with a once-proud university looking like a backwater institution where worshipping at the statue of Joe was more important than protecting young boys exposed to horrors that will haunt them the rest of their lives.
Paterno’s family can protest all it wants, but there is no way to spin this: He hurt a place where his word was gospel, and it may be decades before anyone outside Pennsylvania hears the words “Penn State” and doesn’t immediately think of naked boys being abused in the same showers used by the young men who brought the university glory on the football field.
His name has already come off a Nike child care center in Oregon. His statue outside Beaver Stadium should come down next.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough. Nothing may ever be enough to make up for what is arguably the worst scandal to hit college athletics. There is no way to turn back the clock, no way to give back to the victims, now grown men, who testified against Sandusky the childhood innocence they lost forever.
There are, however, ways to make sure the culture that enabled Sandusky never takes root on any college campus again; ways to help re-establish some moral authority in college sports; ways to make sure no university janitor is ever afraid again to report a terrible crime because he fears losing his job.
Yes, Penn State has already paid dearly, its pristine reputation damaged beyond repair. “Winning with honor,” a motto made famous by Paterno, is worth a wince and a cringe. The school will also surely pay from the pocketbook, with untold millions going to victims in civil suits.
The almighty football program at the center of all this must pay, too. It must or else we have learned nothing from this sordid mess.
Don’t wait for the school to impose some voluntary sanctions on itself. It won’t happen. No one at Penn State has the guts to do it.
That leaves you, NCAA. You must act. Now.
No more excuses. No more using semantics to try to dance around the responsibility of policing the seamy side of college athletics.
The independent investigation is complete, and it’s a safe bet it’s far more thorough than anything the NCAA could have produced. Freeh, the former FBI director, laid it all out in a 267-page report that concluded Paterno and three former administrators conspired to conceal Sandusky’s sexual attacks on children to avoid damage to the reputation of the university and its vaunted football program.
Penn State football deserves to survive, though barely. The NCAA can’t give it the so-called “death penalty” anyway, because it applies only to schools that commit a major violation while on probation. Aside from that, there’s no punishment too severe for the Cowardly Lions.
If Ohio State gets a one-year bowl ban for players selling jerseys, what should Penn State get for selling out a whole community? If Reggie Bush cost Southern California a four-year probation for accepting cash and cars, what should Penn State get for letting a child molester use its locker rooms for his perverse fantasies?
The NCAA rulebook never contemplated this kind of thing, but that’s of no real importance. NCAA President Mark Emmert told the university in November that a failure to exhibit moral values or a pattern of “deceitful and dishonest behavior” could be cause for action by itself.
Moral values went out the window when Paterno and campus officials made no move to keep Sandusky off campus in 1998 after a woman complained her child had showered with the then-assistant coach. The pattern of deceit and dishonesty followed when no one turned Sandusky over to the police after he was seen sexually abusing a boy in the showers in the football locker room.
An NCAA official gave the usual bureaucratic response after the report was released, saying it needs to hear Penn State’s response to some questions before the agency can proceed. Given the devastating conclusions drawn by the Freeh report, the university might as well leave its response blank. There’s no defense.
NCAA—here’s a suggestion for punishment: Give Penn State a year’s probation and bowl ban for every year Sandusky ran amok at State College since 1998, until he was arrested last year. That’s a staggering 13 years, a penalty that would gut the football program much as Sandusky gutted the lives of those young boys.
They never got a second chance, but the NCAA can still take the high road and give Penn State one. Shave a year off the penalty for every year the university demonstrates it is moving forward and has control of the program. Throw in a bonus year if everything symbolic of the cult of Joe is removed from campus once and for all.
Six years from now, declare it a new day and let Penn State football emerge for a new era.
No, it’s not fair to the players currently enrolled. It’s not terribly fair, either, to new coach Bill O’Brien, though he had to know when signing his deal that a day of reckoning would come. And it’s certainly not fair to Penn State fans, whose only crime was believing all that was St. Joe.
Remember this NCAA: There was nothing fair at all about what was done to those young boys, either.
This one is so simple. There is no other choice. Gut the program. Doing anything less will strip the organization of the last bit of credibility it has as the watchdog of college athletics.
(Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.)