Paterno Fired And Penn State Imploding, But Will Sports Get in The Way of Justice?

Penn State, the flagship public state university of Pennsylvania, has imploded.

Despite what has been a straight-forward trail of events in the Jerry Sandusky football coach child sex scandal, there are still many angles yet to consider in this story. This is more than football or legacies, maybe even more than the pedophilia scandal itself. As the news unfolds about Penn State’s woes we must consider what the events over the past few days mean for the victims, the students, the tax payers, and school sports teams in general.  

After a grand jury report released on Saturday charged former Penn State football defensive coordinator Sandusky with sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period, school athletic director Tim Curley and senior Vice President Gary Schultz both turned themselves into authorities in light of charges that they knew of and failed to report Sandusky to police years ago. Both maintain their innocence. Still, it is alleged that both men had been made aware of an incident where a graduate assistant on the football team witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a child in a locker room shower. Instead of immediately telling police, the graduate assistant went through the chain of command by first telling head football coach Joe Paterno, who continued to pass the alert through school administrators. All persons involved did nothing against Sandusky.

The episode exploded just as Penn State football was riding an 8-1 record, ranked 12th in the nation and leading the Big Ten conference to a likely Rose Bowl appearance come January. For Paterno – the winningist coach in college football history – this season could have been one of his greatest yet. The coach is revered both as a legend in college football and as a school icon at Penn State. The Nittany Lions were gearing up for the final home game of the season against Nebraska this weekend.

But it became clear that, despite all of Paterno’s leadership on the field, his lack of leadership off the field in properly dealing with the Sandusky scandal years ago will now become his final, soured legacy.

On Wednesday, Penn State’s Board of Trustees sought to do damage control, and in an unprecedented way – they fired both 16-year school President Graham Spanier and Paterno. Spanier is widely held in high esteem for his ability to help Penn State become a top-tier academic and research institution over the last two decades.

For any student who has attended an American college, what happened at Penn State is truly unbelievable. All school figureheads and icons have been removed, and the very essence of school tradition – the football program – is now is shambles. As Paterno and Spanier’s fate was revealed, the hushed crowds at Penn State were reported to have gasped, and women could be heard weeping. Metaphorically, this is to Penn State what Apple fans felt when Steve Jobs died.

As they watched the heads of the upper echelon of school administration roll, Penn State students took to the streets, rioting and flipping cars.

The story is surprisingly straightforward. There is little room for debate on the issues – those who committed crimes or hid the issue are now seeing justice enacted on them. But as linear as the outcome may look, there are still things to consider, issues that must be covered quickly.

Will sports get in the way of justice? Public opinion – shown in Wednesday night’s riots – apparently is more outraged over the firing of “Joe Pa” than the eight alleged child sex assaults which sparked all of this. There were no riots when it was announced that a coach had committed these crimes, and we might wonder if this scandal will be framed by the “travesty” that happened to football instead of the tragedy that actually occurred to children. Penn State students should be embarrassed. They were wronged, but should have acted differently.

How could this have happened at a public institution? Penn State is a public institution supported by government. The officials who run the school and football program should be held to the same high standards applied to public officials. There should be some concern that public officials partook in heinous crimes.

Do universities have a sports problem? Many major universities have a popular sports team, beloved by millions locally and nationally. Think Kentucky or Kansas basketball, and Alabama or Texas football – what defines each of these schools is not necessarily their academics, their brains, but rather their sports teams. As Penn State shows, schools are even willing to go to great lengths to cover up massive atrocities if it means protecting their cherished sports traditions. This story forces us to reconsider the role of sports on college campuses today. 

What is owed to students? In Wednesday night’s riots, Penn State showed that there was another victim in the scandal: the students. School officials have shown that they have lied on a massive scale, and those lies have now up-ended the very institutions that students valued in their community. Penn State students deserve an apology.

Why do sports figures often get undeserved second chances? Penn State was very close to letting Paterno off the hook, either letting him finish off the season or allowing him to wipe his hands of the situation and retire on his own terms. Officials were right to fire him immediately, but there are so many other sports stars who often get an unjustifiable second chance in the spotlight. Think Michael Vick. Any ordinary American would likely not get such a second chance.    

Photo Credit: onwardstate.com