Reality check for Penn State: Yes, it’s a football scandal

An excerpt from the Freeh Group's report.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
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“Failed to protect a child predator from harming children for over a decade.”

This is Joe Paterno. This is Penn State

“A striking lack of empathy for child-abuse victims.”

This is the one of the most revered leaders in the history of American sports. This is the school that blindly followed him.

“Total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of … child victims.”

It’s now official. It’s now in writing, the above quotes being part of a 267-page report released Thursday that detailed the results of an eight-month investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh.

PHOTOS: Who’s who in the Sandusky case

According to the report, the actions of serial child molester Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, were not only ignored but empowered by Paterno and other top university officials in hopes of avoiding bad publicity for the football team.

The report finds that Sandusky, who was convicted in June of 45 counts of sexual abuse involving 10 boys over the span a decade, was allowed to remain on campus for years after Paterno and other officials knew of a 1998 criminal investigation into his actions.

The report notes that Paterno, the most powerful man on this cocoon of a campus, directed a decision to ignore the evidence of Sandusky’s repeated sexual assaults on children while allowing Sandusky to freely roam the university and use his access and influence to continue his crimes.

DOCUMENT: Paterno, Penn State failed in Sandusky case, report finds

“In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse,” the report said, adding that this inaction actually endorsed the serial child molester and “provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims.”

Read it and weep. Read it and heed. This is what happens when a university sports program becomes bigger than the university. This is what happens when a coach becomes more important than the ideals and values he is hired to coach. This is what happens when we are so blinded by the pursuit of fame and glory that we stop looking closely at the leaders charged with taking us there.

Paterno, who was fired when the Penn State scandal erupted last winter, died of lung cancer in January at age 85. In the most unexpectedly horrific of ways, his legacy will live forever.

The winningest Division 1 college football coach in history didn’t symbolize the best of sports leadership, but the worst.

The program he built on the motto of “Success With Honor” was really about “Success With Horror.”

The bronze statue of Paterno that stands outside Beaver Stadium should be immediately removed, as it is no longer even fit for the droppings of birds. The Paterno name should also be taken off the school library, as his legacy has permanently checked out.

The report, which also condemns former university President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley, paints a chilling portrait of a university more interested in protecting the powerful football team than the welfare of children.

Even after Sandusky was seen engaging a sexual act with a minor in a campus shower in 2001 — a central piece of evidence against him — the report indicates that Paterno’s influence persuaded the school to refrain from calling law enforcement officials. In the smoking gun emails produced in the report, Spanier, Curley and Shultz had agreed to report Sandusky to the Department of Public Welfare, but relented after Curley was dissuaded by Paterno.

In ensuing years, although he had retired, Sandusky was allowed full access to campus while continuing his sexual abuse of children.

At a news conference Thursday, Freeh called the university’s lack of action “callous and shocking” and cited one man who had the most power to stop the abuse, but didn’t.

Joe Paterno was “an integral part of this active decision to conceal,” Freeh said.

The most chilling part of the report may not have involved the highest reaches of the university hierarchy, but the lowest levels. Several months before the publicized campus shower assault in 2001, two janitors witnessed another campus shower assault involving Sandusky and a child, yet they did not tell Paterno because they feared for their jobs.

It “would have been like going against the president of the United States,” said one janitor. “I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone … football runs this university.”

Football runs this university. This is why students actually rioted last winter in protest of Paterno’s firing. Perhaps this is also why, before the televised release of the report Thursday, all of the televisions in the Penn State student center went dark before returning to power on a different channel. Here’s hoping that, at some point, the university will stop ignoring the damage he caused for the sake of the 409 games his football teams won.

The Paterno family issued a statement Thursday that read, in part, “The idea that any sane, responsible adult would knowingly cover up for a child predator is impossible to accept.”

Yet earlier this week, one of Paterno’s final letters to his former players surfaced in which his acuity can be questioned. A month before his death, Paterno wrote that the Sandusky matter “is not a football scandal and should not be treated as one.”

Even at the expense of the most common tenets of human decency, one of the greatest football coaches in history was intent on protecting his football team until his last pitiful breath. Shame on us if we’re not watching and learning.

In other Penn State news this week, it was announced that the university had collected $208.7 million in donations during the recently completed school year, the second-most in school history.

According to university spokesman David LeTorre, the donations “send a loud and distinct message.”

Sadly, they do.