The Right Thing To Do
Joe Paterno's career at Penn State started out being about weeks, the distance from one college football Saturday to the next.
In then became about years, then decades, then, well, about no time period at all. Just indefinite. As forever as sport can be for any human.
Then, at some point in the past two weeks, like one of those crazily accelerated clocks you see in film to demonstrate time travel, Paterno's career path reversed.
It became about weeks again, but almost immediately, it became about days as the powder keg the school had been sitting on finally exploded. By yesterday afternoon, it was about hours, and then, the wake of his firing last night, it became almost minute-to-minute as police dealt with the situation on campus that erupted and turned out to be relatively mild as these things go.
Paterno went from having a statue in his likeness outside Beaver Stadium to being curtly dismissed over the phone in what seemed to be the blink of an eye. Once the steamroller started, the most powerful individual in the history of one of U.S. college football's most noteworthy programs was helpless to stop it. Those who had seen the school benefit from Paterno's football program to the tune of more than $50 million in profits last season alone suddenly discovered he was dead weight that needed to be jettisoned as fast as possible.
He didn't go alone. The Jerry Sandusky scandal has already produced all kinds of collateral damage outside of the tragic victims themselves. One phone call from Paterno to the police could have changed some, if not all of this. But that phone call was never made. There are those who want to believe this was a one-time error of judgement by Paterno. Maybe. Or perhaps it was just the way he looked as such issues. As the Orlando Sentinel reported again today, Paterno's comments in 2006 before a bowl game when the opposing school kicked a player off the team for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman was revealing.
"He may not have even known what he was getting into. … A cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Thank God they don't knock on my door. I'd refer them to a couple of other rooms," said Paterno.
From afar, we Canadians look at U.S. college football with a certain level of puzzlement. Or awe. Some might compare it to junior hockey is this country, but the scale is something else entirely. There isn't a junior hockey team in Canada that creates the same mass-scale, blind loyalty as unsuccessful NCAA Division One progams, let alone the biggees like Notre Dame, Michigan, Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and, of course, Penn State.
So how to put the Paterno/Sandusky story into any kind of Canadian context, and how to imagine what the correct decisions are for the Nittany Lions and the school going forward?
Well, for Torontonians, there was the Maple Leaf Gardens sex scandal. Assaults of children at the Gardens by inside workers began in the 1970s, and by the early 1990s those who had succeeded Harold Ballard as caretakers of the arena and the team were contacted by victims looking for action to be taken. Martin Kruze told Gardens executives of the abuse he had suffered at the hands of men like Gordon Stuckless and George Hannah, and his silence was temporaily bought for $60,000. Four years later, however, he took his story public, and the appalling tales of boys exploited by a Gardens sex ring, their innocence purchased for sticks and pucks and autographs, exploded. Steve Stavro and his fellow Gardens executives stalled and stalled, failing to recognize the enormity of the tragedy. In one infamous press conference, Stavro's lawyer, Brian Bellmore, offered the same defence that would echo with the Paterno case years later, suggesting the Leafs didn't go to the police after hearing from Kruze because they weren't legally bound to do so. Ken Dryden's greatest achievement as Leaf president, however, was that he did understand the disastrous tragedy, and took action. When Kruze committed suicide, Dryden had the flag at the Gardens lowered to half-mast, and initiatives were undertaken to recognize and assist the many victims of the abuse that stained the building once seen as a Canadian institution.
There were certainly elements in common between what happened at the Gardens and what has happened at Penn State. If there's a difference, it was that no senior individual associated with the hockey club was ever implicated in either the abuse or the silence. Stuckless, Hannah and John Paul Roby were familiar to those who had been around the Gardens for years or even decades, but no evidence ever revealed that a coach or GM or player or team president was aware of the pedophile ring. That said, it all happened under Harold Ballard's watch, and he was dead by the time the scandal broke. We'll never know what he knew or didn't know.
In both cases, delayed action compromised the integrity of those that did know, or were told after the fact.
On a much smaller level, two Canadian universities have been hit hard by football-related scandals in recent years, and in both cases, the football program was shut down.
In Oct., 2005, McGill cancelled its football season after a hazing scandal involving players being assaulted with a broom was revealed. The coach, Chuck McMann, was not fired.
In June, 2010, the University of Waterloo suspended its football program for one year after it was revealed several players had tested positive for steroids.
So what happens next at Penn State?
Well, as with Graham James, police and prosecutors intend to move swiftly and aggressively against Sandusky, and there is all kinds of speculation that the depth of the scandal and the number of victims could expand.
While James committed his crimes in secret and was able to successfully hide his activities from those who employed him as a coach, it seems apparent that there was some kind of a cover-up in the Sandusky case that involved a number of senior personnel at the 95,000-student university. As with Watergate, the crime is one thing, but it's the cover-up that brings everyone down.
It's not clear whether the NCAA has any authority to act as it has in various recruiting scandals in football and basketball. But it's the school, really, that needs to recognize the enormity of what has happened and act. This weekend's game against Nebraska, a match of enormous implications to U.S. college rankings, could produce an ugly spectacle if those backing JoPa insist on making their case at the game. It would have been far worse if Paterno had been on the sidelines.
More important, continuing with the game, and counting the gate receipts after, suggests business as usual at a school where it should be anything but. Seriously, go online and read the Grand Jury Report on Jerry Sandusky. Talks of things that happened in Penn State football locker rooms. Then tell me it would be appropriate for the Nittany Lions to come running out of the tunnel on Saturday.
The game should be cancelled, with Penn St. forfeiting to the Cornhuskers. It would just be morally wrong to play the game after all that has happened this week, and an insult to the victims, many of whom are just emerging to tell their stories. Accountability is what is necessary now for Penn St., not a big win.
And beyond this weekend? Penn St. football, it's clear, needs a dramatic re-set, both as a sports program in which any number of incidents involving football players have been hushed up over the years, and as a functioning part of the university. Paterno can still help. He can come clean with exactly what he knew, and when. He can explain why Sandusky was allowed to remove himself as an assistant coach at a relatively young age but then continue to operate a foundation on school property. Paterno can really start thinking of the university rather than himself or the football program, and come clean. His old legacy is gone; honesty, true honesty in the face of scandal, can be his new legacy. Lord help him, however, if his knowledge and actions were far greater than what has thus far been revealed.
It's worth remembering other U.S. schools are also in the midst of enormous football scandals. At the University of Miami where a booster has admitted to providing players with cash and prostitutes for years, it's unclear what the fallout will be. Officials at the University of Central Florida, including the athletic director, were fired on Wednesday for recruiting violations involving the football and basketball teams. In recent months there have been all kinds of unseemly stories involving Cam Newton, Jim Tressel, the Oregon football team and the Fiesta Bowl.
Yet its clear the Penn State scandal goes beyond any of them. It's quite possibly the biggest scandal in the history of U.S. college sports. You simply cannot minimize it. You cannot try to let the games go on. This isn't about tattoos or $10,000; this is about children, perhaps many children, being sexually abused by a predator. You can debate whether young men from difficult circumstances are in any position to reject offers of cash and cars. You can't debate that when there's suspicion of a pedophile being active the right thing to do is call the police. There is no debate, and there wasn't in 1998, or 2002. Or six months ago.
If Penn State voluntarily suspends it's football program - unlikely - or is forced to, there will be those who say it unfairly affects student-athletes who weren't involved in the scandal. Well, that's what always happens, folks. The old one-bad-apple story. Look at what happened at USC in the wake of improprieties involving Reggie Bush. When SMU received the "death penalty," it's not as if every player was implicated.
Same goes for many of the football players at McGill and Waterloo. Was it fair to all of them? Of course not. But the schools most definitely did the right thing.
Penn St. can still do the right thing, which would be to suspend the football program. At least for one year, allowing a entirely new group of administrators and football officials and staff to be located and hired. Unthinkable for Penn State? Maybe? But nobody forecast the possible death of the euro last month, and now it's being openly talked about as the European Union mess spreads.
That's what happens in these kinds of stories. The unthinkable becomes logical in a day.
And if this Penn State scandal does widen, it could be that such a seemingly extreme punishment, shutting down Nittany Lions football, will seem mild.