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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Kramer addresses the Penn State scandal

So you probably noticed I’ve been trying to get more Grantland-y lately. You know, breaking down the gritty issues of the day in sports, like how my two fantasy football teams are doing (Master Cylinder 5-4, McLuckie’s Charms 7-2) or how much I want a Forever Lazy onesie (even more than a Gyro Bowl). It’s hard to for me to write about serious subject matter, and I imagine it will be harder, or more accurately less fun, to read about serious issues in the sports section. That’s right, I’m getting Grantland-y. In fact, this article will digress from Grantland’s strict editorial standards in only one respect: its focus will be sports, not my favorite things on HBO. So I hope that I can give an adequate treatment to a serious issue, though this attempt to address a sensitive topic may end up being an even more egregious example of my hubris than the time I tried to remember the three government programs I would eliminate if elected and then stole Ron Paul and Mitt Romney’s answers. Anyway, prepare for a sad story, readers; we’ll be OK, I promise. I just have to do this to morph from my sports columnist cocoon into a serious journalist butterfly. Right now I’m Judith Miller; at the end of this column I’ll be Seymour Hersh! Literary highlife, here I come!

The most depressing piece of news from the sports world this week was the weekend announcement of the findings of the grand jury investigation of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky stands accused of over 40 criminal charges stemming from his alleged sexual abuse of at least eight young boys from 1994-2009. It would be glib and foolish for me to presume I have any insight into the particulars of the case or any knowledge of who knew what and when they knew it at Penn State. It appears that Coach Joe Paterno, Athletic Director Tim Curley and University President Graham Spanier are all guilty at the very least of not doing their utmost to stop the abuses after they heard about them and alert the authorities; at the worst, all three could have been involved in a monstrous cover-up. But to speculate on either side is pointless. Paterno, who became the winningest coach in the history of college football this season with his 409th victory, had already announced that he would step down at the end of this season but was fired Wednesday night. JoePa spent 46 years as the epitome of Nittany Lions Football, winning two national titles and three Big Ten titles since Penn State joined the league in 1994. Obviously all we as outside observers can feel is outrage at these alleged abuses and the hope that Sandusky being brought to justice will bring some modicum of peace to the alleged victims and their families.

Such a sensitive topic that involves lifelong psychological scarring, then, clearly ought to be handled sensitively in the media. The serious news media, for the most part, has at least been its normal rabid, maudlin self, gobbling up the Penn State scandal as just another ratings-worthy tragedy in this sick, sad world. It’s annoying, but at least it’s typical and it’s what you expect from corporate media. But the scandal’s treatment in the sports media (or as it’s more colloquially known, ESPN) has been largely as just another sports scandal, akin to the jerseys-for-tattoos scandal at Ohio State or the pay-for-play allegations at Miami (FL). Such comparisons have no place in this discussion. While Penn State officials are involved in the scandal and some of the incidents of abuse are alleged to have been perpetrated in athletic facilities, there is no point in the kind of stories and opinion pieces circulating in the sports media. The only outcome of this speculation will be the recounting of the horrific details of the grand jury report, causing further emotional distress to the alleged victims and biasing potential jurors.

All someone with as little knowledge as us sports writers (wow, did I seriously just include myself in that category?) can do is concentrate on the college football aspect of this story, which is the firing of Joe Paterno and Penn State’s upcoming game against Nebraska. Joe Paterno’s record as a college coach is completely separate from this scandal, so the career retrospectives need to be distinct from the stories on the grand jury’s findings and Sandusky’s arrest. All the facts have yet to emerge. The character studies trying to reconcile the integrity with which the man ran his program with the lack of integrity with which the entire Sandusky saga has been handled are pointless because they operate from baseless assumptions.

In many ways, I can totally understand why the University decided to fire JoePa Wednesday rather than wait until the end of this season; thanks mostly to the media, Paterno’s face is inextricably tied to the entire Sandusky scandal, probably more so even than that Sandusky’s. College athletics scandals, and probably scandals in general, tend to bring down the most visible person involved. Paterno alleges that he was not told anything nearly as detailed or graphic as what is contained in the grand jury report, yet at this point it’s irrefutable that he knew something inappropriate happened with Sandusky and a young boy in Penn State facilities. His course of action was to notify the athletic director and vice-president of the University, meeting his legal, but not moral, obligations. These two superiors in turn took no legal action and did not notify authorities. Not to excuse Paterno, but they are the ones most truly deserving of our ire, along with, perhaps, current assistant coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed the alleged abuse and only told Paterno (There were multiple times when Sandusky was essentially caught by someone but authorities were not involved or no charges were filed.). The administrators are the only ones under investigation for a potential cover-up and indicted by the grand jury because administrators are where the buck stops in college athletics.  It’s also important that the University move on symbolically from Sandusky by removing Paterno to show, to paraphrase Board of Trustees Vice Chair John Surma’s words, that that University is bigger than football.

Firing Paterno on Wednesday rather than letting him finish the season and retire (as he had stated he would do in a press release hours before his ouster) was probably the right thing to do for Penn State. But firing JoePa does little to mitigate the tragedy of what Sandusky’s alleged victims experienced. It seems unfitting to make the purely symbolic move of firing him only three weeks before his planned retirement date (four weeks if the Nittany Lions make it to the inaugural Big Ten Championship game). They could even have asked him to resign at the end of the regular season, before the B1G Championship or the bowl game. It was heartbreaking to see a solemn Paterno and visibly upset wife Sue standing outside their State College home to greet the 100 or so supporters gathered there after his firing was announced. These people live for Penn State, and live for Paterno as the symbol of “success with honor” that has become the football program’s motto. From his six decades in college football, one can’t help but get the feeling that Joe Paterno is at heart a good man. His actions are questionable, but he likely only made a mistake that was the product of the incredible high-stakes and media scrutiny of big time college athletics. Coaches are trained to go to administrators before the authorities, and I doubt many major college coaches would have acted differently under the circumstances as Paterno describes them. Paterno made in handling the information he was given about sexual abuse of minors in Penn State facilities, but it seems pointlessly cruel to deny the Penn State community a rallying point in Paterno for a mere three more weeks before allowing arguable the best coach of all time to exit with dignity. The scandal is not disappearing just because Paterno won’t be on the sidelines or in the press box. On Wednesday evening as Paterno turned to go back inside his house after telling the students to go home, get a good night’s sleep and study, one of the student supporters shouted the Nittany Lions’ rallying cry, “We are Penn State!”

Paterno responded, “That’s right. We are Penn State. Don’t ever forget it.”

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  • K

    Kramer J McLuckieNov 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    See also this fundraiser for RAINN

  • K

    Kramer J McLuckieNov 11, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Update: PSU is now sponsoring a Blue Out for Saturday’s game against Nebraska and are soliciting donations for Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania; donations can be made online at