Harboring a serial campus predator

We actually heard the term, “overreaction” used in commentary by one of the talking heads in sports during the flurry of chatter in wake of Louis J. Freeh’s report on the Penn State scandal that saw the conviction of Jerry Sandusky, former assistant to Joe Paterno, the late coaching legend. As expected, some of the Penn State faithful, while acknowledging Sandusky’s misdeeds as a serial molester of young boys under cover of the school’s football program, stoutly maintained that no culpability for this attached either to Paterno or Penn State. It was seen by some of these inflexible defenders as way over the top that the Paterno/Penn State reputation be made to abide the suggestion already being bandied about that either the school, of its own accord, or the NCAA should suspend the football program for some period.

Loyalty has its place, but we have here something pretty much approaching sick reckoning when folks — whether members of the Penn State community, football fans or others – continue with an implausible insistence that Paterno and the high command at the school were blameless, even after release of what appeared to be a fairly thorough investigation by the former FBI director. Freeh concluded, based on all that had been unearthed, that it was concern over what bad publicity would do to the school’s image, that gave rise to the cover-up. A 2001 incident involving Sandusky’s predatory behavior with one youngster was about to be reported to the state authorities, the investigation revealed, and Paterno prevailed upon the others in the loop, including the university president, not to proceed as they had planned. It was just one more indication of why Paterno was routinely referred to as the most powerful figure on the Penn State campus. And it underscored a wrong-headed, very troubling growth pattern at some institutions, where an athletic program (primarily football or basketball) could develop into such a cash cow and become such an outsize campus presence as to require deft handling to ensure the part and the whole remain clearly defined. That the president kowtowed to Paterno in a matter of such gravity (the report alleged that even the lame alternative Paterno suggested was never acted upon) paints a sorry picture.

What’s shocking, now as at every step of the way of the public having been made wise to these happenings, is the short shrift paid to the damage done on the side of the victims. Everyone — school officials, Paterno supporters, Paterno’s family – who was heard from about this scandal made the obligatory compassionate remark about the youngsters abused by Sandusky. Problem is, it’s difficult to reconcile such sentiments with a refusal to accept that others, beyond Sandusky, must share in the responsibility for what was perpetrated. The response of the Paterno family, in fact, bore evidence of not very smart counsel or of proceeding in ill-advised fashion if done on their own. In light of what was divulged in Freeh’s report, silence was an infinitely better option than Paterno’s son making the rounds to convince anyone willing to listen that his father was guilty of no wrongdoing.

Had Sandusky’s dastardly acts been known only to himself and those victims, the claim of innocence with respect to others on the campus would of course be sustainable. Sadly, that’s not the case, as meticulously detailed in Freeh’s report. It follows that the institution being made to pay some price for this immoral conduct that was condoned by some of its top brass becomes a no-brainer. The university’s board of trustees has acquitted itself well so far in this sordid chapter of Penn State history. Tapping someone with Freeh’s reputation to conduct the investigation sent a clear message that the trustees wanted no stone left unturned to determine how things had gone so terribly awry. Now, with the report presented, it’s probably the trustees’ call to take the initiative in the restoration process and the form of punishment that comes with it.

On that punishment question, some have dared to argue that football is just too important to Penn State to be suspended. Not that they don’t sympathize with the unfortunate victims, mind you, but… And it’s fair to assume that none of those vehemently opposed to any shutdown of Penn State football would see their position as favoring a profit-driven campus activity over concern for defenseless youngsters perhaps emotionally scarred for life.

From a practical standpoint, it probably is best that the football program be suspended at least for a couple of years, anyway. There would likely be some cathartic effect in going that route. Having the program continue in some apparition of normalcy, as if a giant-size thunder bolt hadn’t rocked the campus, could well prove to be more of a stretch than its advocates bargained for. Maybe a couple of years in which to regroup is precisely what the football program needs.

As for the Paterno legacy, perhaps it’s best that fate intervened to make him no longer a presence by the time of the Sandusky conviction or Freeh’s report. Paterno’s family, in another ill-conceived attempt to put a positive spin on what seems pretty incontrovertible, resorted to saying no sane individual would have knowingly contributed to putting innocent children at risk. There’s a paper trail that says Paterno did just that, thereby changing everything, never mind those who stubbornly cling to a legacy that was.

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