Fittingly, the most chilling part of Louis J. Freeh’s lengthy condemnation of Penn State University and its legendary football coach Joe Paterno involves two men more fearful of a football program than a child molester.
According to the 267-page internal report released Thursday, in the fall of 2000, two janitors spotted former longtime Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky behaving inappropriately with a young boy in the campus showers.
The men said they didn’t to go to police because they were afraid that Paterno would order them fired.
“Would have been like going against the president of the United States in my eyes,” one janitor told investigators. “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.
That sad statement should echo as a warning through the halls of educational institutions everywhere in the wake of a report that illustrates how a football-run university lost its way for the sake of sporting glory.
The actions of now-convicted sex offender Sandusky were not only ignored but empowered by Paterno and other top university officials in hopes of avoiding bad publicity for the football team, according to the findings of an eight-month investigation conducted by former FBI Director Freeh.
Sandusky, who was convicted in June of 45 counts of sexual abuse involving 10 boys over a decade, was allowed to remain on campus for years after Paterno and other officials knew of the initial 1998 criminal investigation into his actions.
The report notes that Paterno, the most powerful man on a 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.
“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 athletic success that we stop looking closely at the leaders charged with taking us there.
Penn State football, with its simple blue-and-white uniforms and its coach’s horn-rimmed glasses, once symbolized the best and purest of college athletics. They played hard, they attended class, they didn’t break any major NCAA rules, they won games in the fall and graduated in the spring, and the program eventually became a shining monument that towered above a troubled sports landscape.
Paterno, college football’s most entrenched leader as Penn State coach for nearly 46 years, proudly fitted the program’s mission with a motto, calling it “Success With Honor.”
Yet over the years, Paterno became bigger and more impenetrable than the mountainous Pennsylvania region where his school resides, and his efforts to protect that domain ultimately changed that motto to something more like “Success With Horror.”
Paterno was fired when the Penn State scandal erupted last winter, and he died of lung cancer in January at age 85. But in the scathing words of Thursday’s report, the sad legacy of his leadership will live forever.
“Failed to protect a child predator from harming children for over a decade … a striking lack of empathy for child abuse victims … total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of … child victims.”
While the report was also critical of former university President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley, the focus was on a culture in which the protection of the powerful football team was more important than the welfare of a child.
It turns out, the winningest Division I college football coach in history didn’t symbolize the best of sports leadership, but the worst.
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.
Not that any of this will happen. In some ways, football is still running the university, with Happy Valley continuing to resemble Wacky Valley.
This is where students actually rioted last winter in protest of Paterno’s firing. This is also where, at the start of the nationally televised release of the report, all of the televisions in the Penn State student center went dark before returning to power on a different channel.
One can only wonder when the university will stop ignoring the damage Paterno caused for the sake of the 409 games his football team won. One can only hope that other schools avoid being drawn into the house of mirrors where glory-producing and reputation-building sports teams dominate, control and then ultimately suffocate.
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 affair “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 listening.