Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Shame and Scandal

It has been a rough time recently for Maryland supporters. Gary Williams shocking retirement, the bitter divorce from Ralph Friedgen, the failed courtships of Mike Leach and Sean Miller, the hiring of Randy Edsall, the dismal performance of the football team and the prospect of a long slog of a basketball season must have most fans more than a little weary. I know personally it has been a struggle to be as invested in Maryland sports recently as I have in the past. There is much to talk about with the struggles of Randy Edsall and his constant PR gaffes, the recruiting class signed by Mark Turgeon today and the specter of looming cuts to athletic programs given the dire straights the athletic department finds itself in after Debbie Yow's mismanagement. All those should be analyzed and discussed because in many ways Maryland athletics are at a crossroads.

Yet after reading the media coverage and grand jury reports regarding the burgeoning scandal at Penn State I can only think there are far worse things than losing games.  Some in the media, in an attempt to make sense of as vile a scandal as there has ever been in American sports, have termed this Penn State's "Len Bias moment." At first glance it is an absurd analogy but also incredibly insulting to link Bias' name with that of a scandal that is at its heart the face of human cruelty. The death of Len Bias was a dreadful tragedy and one that in many ways still lingers to this day at the University of Maryland. The wound opened when Bias lost his life has taken many years to heal in the community and the scar of that loss will last for decades still. It may have indirectly exposed some things about the athletic department and Lefty Driesell's basketball program that were unseemly and the attempt by administrators to minimize the fallout from Bias' death only made the school look worse. Bias became a symbol of sorrow at a time when cocaine was beginning to create havoc across the nation. His death took its place as part of the national discourse over the proliferation of drugs but the pain was of a community that lost one of its most exceptional members in a heartrending and shocking manner.

What has transpired at Penn State, based on the available evidence, is something else entirely. I cannot think of another scandal in the history of American sports that involves this level of moral failure by an institution and the individuals charged with the ultimate responsibility of an organization. There may be a few murderers in the history of sports but they all acted as individuals. There are few, if any, acts that surpass the molestation of a child in depravity. The scandal at Baylor by former coach Dave Bliss is the only situation I can think of that even approaches the moral culpability of those people at Penn State that were informed of Jerry Sandusky's behavior. Bliss attempted to slander a player who was a victim of murder, perpetrated by the former teammate at Baylor, as a drug dealer in an attempt to divert attention from NCAA violations that were committed by Bliss. As despicable as that was Bliss had no role in the murder and did not participate by failing to report a crime to the police. There is no corollary for what happened in Happy Valley. It is unprecedented in college athletics. The "scandals" in college sports that Penn State was so proud to avoid, what often amounts to hustling for money on one side or the other, are trifling compared to the rape of numerous children.

Those in power at Penn State were aware over the course of years that there were serious issues regarding Sandusky and his relationship with minors. He held onto his job after the initial legal investigation in 1998 and was given emeritus status and unfettered access to the university facilities even after leaving the coaching staff. A few years later a member of the staff witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a boy in the showers at the gym on campus. Even though a crime was witnessed by an employee on university property the local law enforcement was never contacted. The culpability of the university and the most powerful individual on the campus, head coach Joe Paterno, is unavoidable. If a person you knew for decades and respected was accused of such a heinous crime would you not try to establish what had precisely occurred? Would a grown man in the shower with a 10 year old boy on a late Sunday evening not cause you concern even without the benefit of further nauseating details? Would you not ensure that someone who has the jurisdiction and authority over such a serious accusation was informed instead of a feckless school administrator? In a self serving statement that was equal parts hubris and senility Paterno claimed he wished he had done more but that Penn State's administrators should not focus on his status but on more important matters. What is sad is that Paterno actually believes that his status isn't a major factor in this scandal. What occurred at Penn State was an abdication by those in authority when confronted with something monstrous and evil. It is inescapable that Paterno is the face of that moral failure and a lame justification that he did all that was required under the law doesn't suffice in the face of the exploitation and rape of children.

How did things get to this point at Penn State? Unfortunately there is nothing exceptional about men like Jerry Sandusky. Pedophiles like him are in communities across this nation preying upon children to satisfy their sick predilections. How did Sandusky in particular get away with this for so long? I think the role of college football in this scandal cannot be overlooked. Penn State's football program brings significant revenue into the university but is also a significant gravitational pull for alumni and booster donations. Anyone who knows Penn State alumni knows that the football program plays a central role in the community there like few places in the country. Paterno's pontiff like role with the program has blurred the line between the individual and institution. If the most powerful man on campus received news that Sandusky had been seen molesting a child on campus and chose not to investigate the matter who would do so in his stead? The tsunami of college football money seems to have wiped away any sense of morality at Penn State and unfortunately it isn't just Happy Valley. The wayward beast of college football is what sends a college kid at Notre Dame up in a scissor lift during a gale to film a practice ending with him plummeting to his death. Not a single member of the football staff paid for that tragedy with their job. It results in 12 deaths at Texas A&M setting up the annual bonfire in the name of absurd tradition. The dismal tide of football now has university presidents jumping from conference to conference to chase a few extra pigskin dollars in a manner that would make Gordon Gekko proud. As Lou Mannheim said in Wall Street, "The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don't want to do."

The Frankenstein monster of college football was not responsible for what Jerry Sandusky did but it made it less likely that people at Penn State would do the right thing. If an unknown Penn State staff member had been caught molesting children on campus I would expect that the response of people like AD Joe Curley, Senior Vice President Gary Schultz and Paterno would have been different. The graduate assistant who witnessed the rape of a child in the football building would not have debated contacting the police if the perpetrator was not a notable former Penn State football assistant. This disgrace is a warning for other colleges that invest in the hegemony of the football program as an element of the institution. Now Penn State will be haunted by the stigma of these foul deeds along with all that football blood money. May those who were victimized by Sandusky, under the umbrella of Penn State football,  be successful in their civil lawsuits against these scoundrels.


Anonymous said...

Where was the PSU legal department in all of this? Paterno and his cronies should not have been the ones to make the decision to cover this up. Despite the sense of "we are cleaner than you" smugness I have encountered among PSU alums over the years, I feel nothing but sadness tonight.

Anonymous said...

The moral failure of the responsible leaders at Penn State is shocking. Edmund Burke said that for evil to triumph, it is only necessary that good men do nothing. But one cannot assume that "good men" were about at PSU or in he football program. Sexual abuse of children is an extraordinarily heinous evil, yet it appears that no one was particularly interested in recognizing or preventing it. This goes far, far beyond recruiting scandals, gifts to athletes, and winking at academic failures. But the administration at PSU doesn't seem to know the differnce. Paterno's reputation is gone now, and the university as a whole will be remembered for tacit complicity in a serious moral failing and criminal acts.

sisterp said...

You said it well.

I hope we all are horrified--and remain so--at this systematic cover-up which allowed many more children to be molested over the years. Each person who knew is culpable morally and legally. All the football talk about valor and courage is complete crap if you choose to let a child be raped.

I do have sympathy for students who are seeing their storied program tumble to the ground in the most disgusting way possible.

But, as the parent of a 9-year-old boy, there is no "judgement call" or moral ambiguity in being part of the support team for a child rapist. They all deserve to go down.