Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State Sex Scandal Shakes Program to the Core

Not even Joe Paterno could survive this one.

In what has been one of the most dramatic and troubling weeks of college football, the Penn State football program has decided to clean house in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.

Sandusky, Paterno's defensive coordinator from 1977 to 1999, was arrested after allegations were made that he had molested and even raped young boys in his charitable foundation, the Second Mile. The scandal got worse as revelations emerged about the involvement of head coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley, and finance officer Gary Schultz, all of whom had knowledge of the allegations but never reported it to the police. Schultz himself was in charge of campus police.

The Huffington Post lays out a timeline of Sandusky's tenure at Penn State and chronicles the abuse. Paterno first learned of the Sandusky allegations from Mike McQueary (a graduate assistant at the time), who reportedly witnessed Sandusky molest a boy in the showers and told Paterno about it. Paterno then informed Tim Curley, the athletic director. Sandusky was banned from bringing young boys onto campus. He retired but still retained emeritus status and an office on campus, in the building where the allegations took place. It was never reported to law enforcement.

Penn State fans say that Joe Paterno met his legal obligation by informing his superior (Curley) of the allegations, but Paterno came under fire from the media, critics, and families of the victims for never following up and never reporting it to the police once it was clear that the athletic department wasn't going to get law enforcement involved. This is especially damaging given Joe Paterno's long history of promoting integrity and serving as a model that Penn State "does things the right way." Some of the allegations against Sandusky are believed to have taken place even while he was on Paterno's staff. There are as many as eight victims who have come forward and testified that Sandusky molested them.

The reactions to this case have been visceral. In the wake of Sandusky's arrest and imminent trial, Curley and Schultz are both facing criminal charges for perjury and failing to report child abuse. They have each stepped down from their positions: Schultz has resigned, and Curley asked for an extended leave of absence.

Shortly after the news of the allegations broke, Penn State University president Graham Spanier offered what he called his "unconditional support" for both Curley and Schultz. Spanier has since been fired as university president. On Wednesday, November 9, Joe Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of the season. However, the Penn State board of trustees convened and decided that it was "in the best interests" of the university for Paterno to be relieved of his duties immediately. With students surrounding his house, Paterno learned in a phone conversation with the board of trustees that he had been fired, and board officials made a formal announcement less than an hour later.

As many media outlets point out, the story has become less about Jerry Sandusky's sex abuse of minors and more about the firing of Joe Paterno, who has been the head coach of Penn State for forty-five years and has recently become the winningest coach in Division I football. Because the aspects of this case concern the welfare of children, and because molestation charges often evoke such intense reactions of both disgust and anger, there have been heated emotions on both sides. While some were calling for Joe Paterno and the entire Penn State football staff to step down, and were happy when they got their wish when Paterno announced his retirement, students took to the streets in protest when they learned that Paterno had been fired. Random acts of violence and property damage ensued, including a news vehicle being tipped over.

When the news of the allegations first broke on the blogosphere, Penn State fans said everything they could to keep Joe Paterno from being targeted and blamed. The Grand Jury that indicted Jerry Sandusky had concluded that Paterno himself would not be charged like Curley and Schultz, since he had reported the abuse to them. However, critics have said that Joe Paterno, while meeting his "legal obligation," failed to meet his "moral obligation" in the case. The failure of reporting Sandusky to authorities on the part of Penn State officials (Curley, Schultz, Paterno, Spanier, and even McQueary) allowed Sandusky to enjoy freedom for more than twenty years as he continued to molest more victims. Paterno admitted that he wished he did more.

This has been a grim reminder that, as sad as the firing of Joe Paterno was, there are more important things in life than college football. Yes, the end of Paterno's tenure at Penn State is a tragedy for the game of football—but football is just a game. What Sandusky was allowed to do, because he was never brought to justice until now, has destroyed the lives of so many children, and no Big Ten championships or national championships will ever be able to erase that. When ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit was asked about the scandal and the firing of Joe Paterno, Herbstreit made an interesting point, although Penn State fans will likely find it controversial.

"The one thing that I think we sometimes overlook when we're discussing this is that this isn't an NCAA infraction," Herbstreit said. "These are the most unthinkable acts that can cross your mind, and this doesn't have anything to do with the NCAA, with Penn State, and with Penn State football, and Joe Paterno. This is like off the Richter scale as far as what we're trying to deal with, so people who are rioting, and people who are showing up and supporting Joe Paterno—listen, we're all in your camp. Everything that Joe meant, everything that he still means to the sport of college football, we get that, but this is bigger than that. This is bigger—than Joe Paterno and being the winningest coach in college football. There's going to be a time to celebrate his career. This isn't about celebrating his career. This is not the time to think about Joe Paterno. To me, this is the time to think about what these young boys were facing, and what they still face, and what their parents face. That's what this is about."

It's hard to see where Penn State, as a program, goes from here. Hardly anyone associated with Penn State or college football remembers a time when Joe Paterno was not the head coach. Personally, I believed that Penn State needed to clean house. It needed to start a new chapter, turn the page, so that it can give justice to the victims and move forward as a college football program.

Joe Paterno's decision to retire at the end of the season was, in my opinion, absolutely the right call, but I was less thrilled to learn that he had been fired. While I can understand the board of trustees' decision, I don't necessarily agree with it. I thought Paterno's retirement was a happy medium, a way for Penn State to turn the page but Paterno, who is guilty of not reporting Sandusky's crimes to police but was also not complicit in covering them up, could leave the program with some dignity—after everything he has done to help Penn State.

This would have been different if the scandal broke out at the start of the season and overshadowed the program for months. But it's just three weeks, which would have gone by before anyone knew it. It was just three more games, and potentially the Big Ten championship. Joe Paterno was not going to be the coach in 2012. He was already stepping down. Now, with his firing, the board of trustees made an incredibly difficult and obviously controversial decision that has resulted in student riots and will likely have more backlash for weeks, months, and perhaps even years to come. But it was what they felt they had to do.

Anyone who is a fan of college football probably has respect for Joe Paterno, who is considered by many to be a living legend. He is essentially Penn State's version of Bo Schembechler. Despite his many positive contributions, Paterno's unceremonious firing, which some consider to be the necessary move, will likely tarnish his legacy. Penn State can no longer boast its sterling reputation or unblemished record. The immediate impact of Paterno's departure will be felt most by Penn State's seniors, who will have to finish the season without the football coach they wanted to play for when they first committed. No one expected the Jerry Sandusky scandal to be completely overblown. It has shaken the program to the core. When news first broke of the allegations and what it would mean for the program, a Penn State fan wrote on a blog: "This is Penn State's darkest day."

Tom Bradley will serve as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season. CBS Sports reported that Mike McQueary, who witnessed Sandusky raping a child and afterwards informed Paterno, will not be on the sidelines on Saturday. Paterno, who was hoping to leave Penn State at the end of the season, announced his retirement so that the board would not have to debate a decision. He was disappointed to learn that the board would not allow him to finish the season, and he later issued a statement regarding his dismissal.

"I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees' decision, but I have to accept it," he said. His supporters continue to flock to his home in droves, but Paterno told them to pray for the victims and their families.

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