Perhaps Penn State never was all it was cracked up to be. Joe Paterno talked a noble game, but everything the university stood for—the Grand Experiment and all that—has turned out to be a sham. It pains me to say this because I admired Paterno and thought he was different, but Joe Pa is a hypocrite and a fraud.
The allegations of child sex abuse by former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky are shocking and disgusting enough. But the years-long effort to essentially turn a blind eye to the scandal by Paterno and other university leaders points to a culture that lost sight of what it claimed to be all about.
Paterno and his myth makers went to great lengths to portray Penn State as having higher standards than other universities. “I don’t like to put myself up as a do-gooder,” he said 20 years ago. “But I am.” Sorry Joe, but do-gooders don’t do the bare minimum when informed that a fellow coach raped a boy in the school shower.
Warren Buffett famously said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Penn State and Paterno proved that theory to be true.
A scandal like this—as shocking as it is—would not be such a surprise if it occurred at the University of Miami or one of the many other schools known for routine violations of NCAA rules, low graduation rates, and athletes-turned-criminals. That says more about the state of college sports these days and how the influence of money has corrupted many campuses.
Add Happy Valley to that list. It’s not just the Sandusky scandal. Penn State’s football program has amassed quite a rap sheet in recent years. Consider: From 2002 to 2008, 46 Penn State football players have faced 163 criminal counts, according to an analysis by ESPN. Twenty-seven players were convicted or pleaded guilty to 45 counts.
The players have been charged with a variety of crimes ranging from sexual assault and brandishing a knife to making terroristic threats and several DUIs. In one incident, a group of about 15 football players broke into an apartment and beat up several students after one of their teammates and his girlfriend was involved in an altercation. One student was reportedly attacked with a beer bottle, another was struck with a wooden stool, while a third was kicked in the face.
The charges against the players involved in the apartment melee were either withdrawn or bargained down. The sexual assault charge against another player was also withdrawn.
Are these incidences a sign that the rules didn’t apply to Paterno’s football program? This much is clear: Paterno’s Grand Experiment, as he called it, of melding football excellence and academic integrity has turned out to be a farce. There may have been a time when Paterno maintained those two ideals. But the hero worship of Paterno combined with calls for his retirement, mounting pressure to win, and the big bucks generated by the football program likely conspired to blur the lines.
There is no doubt Paterno was a great coach who had a positive impact on many of his players, who graduated at higher rates than players from most other football schools. He helped put the university on the map both athletically and academically. Paterno backed up his words with hefty financial gifts to the university, which helped build a library wing and support other academic efforts.
Those are all good deeds that are a big part of the measure of the man. But Paterno clearly dropped the ball on the Sandusky case. He was Penn State. More so than the athletic director or the president, Paterno had the ability to put a stop to Sandusky’s alleged misdeeds.
Instead, Paterno passed the buck. But as the other scandals show, all has not been perfect at Penn State for some time. In fact, the effort to protect Paterno’s legacy resulted in his and Penn State’s undoing.