"The Name on the Front of the Jersey": The case for suspending Penn State football

For at least 14 years - and perhaps longer - the Penn State football program sheltered and enabled a predatory pedophile. The head coach knew. So did at least one assistant. The athletic director knew. The president of the University did too. Apparently, even the guys who clean the floors at Lasch Football Building in State College knew.

Would you be the least bit surprised if it turns out a lot of the other coaches and players knew? Of course not. None of us would be surprised.

That begs the question. Why did Penn State football harbor a predator? More specifically, why did Joe Paterno harbor him - especially in 2001, when Mike McQueary reported that Sandusky had sodomized a boy in the showers of the football building? To protect the image of the Penn State football team, of course.

No other explanation makes sense. And for that reason, Penn State should suspend its football program for at least a year, if not longer.

In his 256 page report released yesterday, Judge Louis Freeh wrote:

''It is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university - Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley - repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from authorities, the university's board of trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large (emphasis added).'

What would bad publicity have meant? Disaster, of course. Dishonor. Litigation. This scandal would have been just as explosive in 2001 as it was in 2011. It wouldn't have been as tragic in 2001 - but that's only by a matter of degree and because the abuse was allowed to go unchecked for another decade.

But it would have been bad in 2001, make no mistake about it.. It would have derailed Paterno's career. It would have besmirched Lions football. Think about that. A whole decade of abuse allowed to continue, just to avoid bad football publicity.

###

Let's count the great things that happened for JoPa during that ten year span from the time that then graduate-assistant Mike McQueary reported Sandusky's sexual abuse of a boy (2001) through Paterno's ignominious termination in November, 2011:

  • two Big 10 Championships (2005, 2009)
  • one consensus National Coach of the Year award (2005)
  • two Big 10 Coach of the Year awards (2005, 2008)
  • induction into the College Football Hall of Fame (2008)
  • seven bowl appearances, including two BCS Bowl appearances (2002, 2005-2010)
  • surpasses Amos Alonzo Stagg as longest-serving major college coach [42 years] (2007)
  • his name enshrined on the B1G championship trophy (2010)
  • becomes the winningest D1 football coach ever [409] (2011)
  • 82 wins

During that same interval, Penn State also had top 25 recruiting classes, per Jamie Newberg (Scout/SI) - in 2002 (#16), 2004 (#12), 2006 (#6), 2009 (#11) and 2010 (#10). Tom Luginbill of ESPN also gave PSU high recruiting marks over the past five years - as far back as I could easily research at least - in 2006 (#9), 2007 (#21), 2009 (#16) and 2010 (#11).

Of course, if you add up conference distributions, license fees, donations and ticket sales, Penn State University football made 100s of millions of dollars over the last decade.

Fame. Prestige. Money.

Penn State football and Joe Paterno - practically synonymous - enjoyed all of that and more for ten years while they gave sanctuary to Jerry Sandusky. And we're not talking passive acceptance, but active facilitation.

Sandusky had an office in the football building not far from Joe's. He had a Penn State car. He had carte blanche access to all PSU sports facilities. He was able to use Beaver Stadium tickets and Lions players for his "charity" (The Second Mile Foundation) - which actually was a front that he used to choose and groom his child victims from poor and destitute families. He was allowed to bring underage boys into the Lasch building even after he was purportedly banned from doing so in 2001. It was a pedophile's dream. And it was indisputably allowed by Paterno, himself the undisputed master of Penn State football.

And because everyone decided that Penn State football was bigger than the law, honor, integrity or common decency - or plain old common sense / survival instinct, for that matter - more boys got raped.

In JoPa's moral firmament, protecting the "Grand Experiment" of Nittany Lions football - Paterno's sobriquet for his own blend of football excellence, high academic standards and moral platitudes (embodied by his well-known motto of "Success with Honor") - was more important than stopping Sandusky, or even disassociating the ex-coach from PSU Football.

The game had become bigger than one of the worst crimes there is.

###

Seven months ago, before his death, Joe Paterno wrote about the Sandusky matter in a letter only published the day before yesterday. "This is not a football scandal and should not be treated as one," he said.

That is a contemptible lie. It was a lie when he wrote it. It remains a lie today.

The L.A. Times gets it. In a column about the Freeh report entitled "Reality check for Penn State: Yes, it's a football scandal", Bill Plashke writes

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.

###

Since it was, in fact, all about football, can anyone explain why any rational person would be opposed to a football sanction?

I've heard or read every argument advanced by those who want to ensure that Penn State football takes the field in 50 odd days without any sanction by the NCAA. They pretty much boil down to five main arguments:

  • the NCAA lacks any legal or moral jurisdiction over the matter;
  • even if there was "lack of institutional control," no competitive advantage was rendered on the field;
  • this is a matter for the Courts; Penn State will be "punished" through litigation or government action;
  • the current players and coaches did nothing wrong;
  • sanctioning Penn State football won't help the victims;

For my part, I think they're all unmitigated b.s.

You might hate the NCAA, but what happened at Penn State makes what transpired at Southern Cal, Ohio State, Oregon, UNC - yes, even South Carolina - pale in comparison. If all those programs have or will receive sanctions - if coaches, athletes and administrators are sanctioned, banned or fined, often for things that did not result in a competitive advantage - then why not Penn State?

You might think the NCAA is arbitrary and capricious. I agree. But a failure to sanction PSU makes the NCAA impotent for all time. Keep in mind, the whole cover-up was to protect Penn State's place in the firmament of NCAA football. If that doesn't qualify as the most horrific case of lack of institutional control ever, then what is? Whatever you may think of the NCAA, it is a voluntary organization that renders prestige to its members. Penn State submitted to the jurisdiction and precepts of the NCAA. Now it must answer to the NCAA.

I won't bother arguing with you if you think keeping silent for a decade that encapsulates 82 wins, 7 bowls, top recruiting classes, awards, honors and millions in revenue - which likely would have been diminished if the truth was known - doesn't count as a competitive advantage. I'd say you were parsing words to the point of debating what constitutes the meaning of "is." Moreover, who cares if there was a competitive advantage or not? Hasn't Judge Freeh showed you that boys were molested to protect Penn State football? That there was not merely a lack of administrative oversight but active participation in enabling a monster?

The concept that PSU will be "sufficiently" punished by the Courts is equally indefensible. Penn State won't close down. It will merely close ranks. It may get hit with large verdicts. More likely, however, it will settle out of court with the victims, in exchange for non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements. Either way (verdict or settlement) the expense will be borne by taxpayers or insurance companies. The University won't be shuttered. Donors will step up. The costs will be absorbed. They always are. That's not the NCAA's business what happens in the Courts. If huge verdicts are rendered, or criminal sentences handed down, it still doesn't address the fact that the football program isn't penalized. Not the way it should be, for crimes committed in its name.

Spencer Hall twisted this last sentiment to the point that he argued, on July 2, that:

There are ways to write about the long trail of the Sandusky case, but somewhere in this, you cross the Nancy Gracepoint. In the face of atrocity, you look for some rationale, some protocol, a straight, unbroken line in an exploded space. Take a statue down, or put one up, or suggest the insanity of foresight. Throw everything down the memory hole. Demand the NCAA, an organization with no legal or moral purview whatsoever, do insane, unjustifiable things to a team that received no on-field benefit whatsoever from this.

If you mean it, you're just anger-binging, and are well past the Gracepoint. Nothing will ever be enough, and you're half-right: nothing ever makes this better, not jail, not torture, not anything, and certainly not fury-mobbing about the mediocre, spineless evil of something so obviously spineless and evil that was still allowed to flourish thanks to the community's leaders. Good reporting literally helps put these people in jail. Horrendous editorializing does not.

If you don't believe it and write it anyway, you're just trolling for hits from the people lining up for the five minute hate. If it's the latter, good on you for finding a profitable angle in a small crashing heap of humanity's worst failures: subservience to authority above all else, cowardice, and a failure to think past your arm's laziest reach. It's an omelet of atrocities, but at least someone's finding a way to make those eggs work.

I think Spencer should be ashamed. What he's saying isn't just morally reprehensible, but on the border of pathological. It's not "anger-binging" or "troll-baiting" or "Nancy Grace-esque."

No, Mr. Hall, it's called justice. It's called honor. It's called perspective. There is no anger in my words. I merely reprehend with sadness. I argue for what's right. I say that the game pales in comparison to the crime. That expiation requires more than saying "let the Court's handle it."

I hope in light of the Freeh report, he's re-thought these intemperate, hurtful words.

As far as "not punishing" the current players and coaches, I don't feel much sympathy. Every athlete or coach there either (a) bought into JoPa's lies; or (b) accepted a position knowing that a huge cloud was hanging over the program. Paterno once famously said "the name on the front of the jersey is what really matters, not the one on the back." Well, that cuts both ways. What Paterno, Spanier and Curly did to conceal and abet the crimes of Sandusky was done for the benefit of the name on the front of the jersey (yes, I know that Penn State uniforms don't actually have the name Penn State on them, but that's hardly the point). It was done for Lions football. For the white helmets and the black shoes. If PSU football is suspended, then the NCAA should allow free transfers and PSU should release staff from their contracts. Those who want to stay, of course, can do so. Football won't be gone forever from Happy Valley. Beaver Stadium will be alive in falls to come. Just not this fall. Not if integrity has anything to do with it.

The least availing argument is that suspending Penn State football distracts our attention from the victims. Come again? This argument infuriates me. We don't know the names of the victims. Or how many there are. But Penn State should still play football because ... because ... we somehow honor the victims or lose focus on them otherwise? Sure, boys were abused in the name of Nittany Lions football, which is the reason why ... it shouldn't be suspended? Really? Seriously? I can't help but find this line of "reasoning" to be morally abhorrent.

How would you feel to be one of Sandusky's victims and watch the Lions take the field at Beaver Stadium in 50 days or so - to the cheers of 100,000 plus fans? Are the fans thinking about you at that point, or expressing love for the same team whose "public image" was more important than protecting you from harm? Worse, what if they're faking or going through the motions of concern - like having the season "dedicated" to you, or wearing arm-bands or helmet ribbons? Maybe PSU will do a white-out. How appropriate.

By all means, let's allow Penn Staters to "heal" by watching ball games so they can cheer the team that JoPa protected. In the house JoPa built. Joe Paterno did what he did because the game meant more to him than the victims. If the Lions play a down of football in 2012, it still will be.

###

"Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good." That's what Paterno once said. If Penn State plays football in 2012, it will be success without honor.

Do the right thing, Penn State. Suspend football for 2012. It will be hard. But it will be right.
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