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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Reversal on Happy Valley

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” —Proverbs 14:34

The Penn State scandal is so disturbing that it’s hard to even write about. When I first heard Joe Paterno had been fired, I thought and wrote that perhaps it was an overreaction on the part of Penn State’s board of trustees. But as I read more about some of the details of the case, I quickly realized I was wrong. As it turns out, Paterno is a split legal hair away from being guilty of covering up a heinous crime spree that staggers the moral imagination of the average American.

As we all know by now, in 2002, assistant football coach Mike McQueary, then a graduate assistant at Penn State, allegedly saw defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in the locker-room shower. To McQueary’s credit, he immediately reported the incident to Coach Paterno.

However, one of the questions people are asking is: Should McQueary, who was then 28 years of age, have gone to the police instead of, or in addition to, telling Paterno? Probably. But I’m willing to stretch my moral slack cutter enough to believe that the youthful McQueary was probably panicked about witnessing such an unfathomable crime and rationalized that he had done his duty by reporting it to the head coach.

Paterno, in turn, reported the incident to Athletic Director Timothy Curley. The same question applies: Should Paterno have gone to the police instead of, or in addition to, telling Curley? Here I have a problem with cutting JoePa much slack.

At the time, Paterno was a 73-year-old prominent role model who had been the head of one of the most prestigious college football programs in the United States for nearly four decades. I’m at a loss to understand why he didn’t follow up, and follow up, and continue to follow up in an effort to find out what action was being taken against Sandusky. (According to the grand jury indictment of Sandusky, “it was within The Second Mile Program that Sandusky found his victims.” Sandusky founded the charity to help troubled youths.)

If Paterno did not follow up, he is an accomplice to the cover-up of a horrific crime. On the other hand, if he did follow up and was told that the university was not going to press charges against Sandusky, he had a moral obligation to take action on his own. And, again, if he did not take such action, he was guilty of repressing information about a serious crime.

Curley and Gary Schultz, Penn State’s senior vice president for finance and business, did not report the incident to the police, but did ban Sandusky from bringing children into the Penn State locker room. By definition, not notifying the authorities amounted to obstruction of justice, a felony that has put many a high-profile person behind bars.

The Penn State embarrassment brings back memories of another iconic football coach, Woody Hayes, who was fired from Ohio State University the morning after he shocked the sports world by punching a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl. What was different in the Hayes case, however, was that there was no crime charged and his inappropriate behavior was witnessed by a stadium full of fans and millions of television viewers.

The issue is much bigger than coaches like Paterno and Hayes, who believe that winning football games is the most important thing in life. The broader issue is the deification of college sports by millions of mindless fans, which sends a bad signal to students who are supposed to be focused on getting a good education.

This is a larger issue than Joe Paterno or Penn State. It’s an issue revolving about the state of our colleges and universities today. n the Duke lacrosse case, the very first advice a dean gave to the lacrosse players -- threatened with possible indictment on first-degree rape charges -- was not to tell their parents. The next advice was not to get attorneys. (And the dean giving this advice was herself a member of the Bar.)

The primary goal was to keep the story out of the news. That would be best for Duke. (It was clearly not in the best interest of the players.) When the university learned the players had in fact gotten attorneys, its displeasure was palpable.

Thereafter, Duke did its utmost to wash its hands of its falsely accused students — the better to demonstrate that it had nothing to do with any possible racism, sexism, hubris, or privileged class status supposedly revealed by the case. The university president, Richard Brodhead, kept an antiseptic distance from the lacrosse players: he never communicated with them; he refused to look at evidence of their innocence; he turned down requests to meet with their parents. They became anathema to him — and it was important that they be publicly seen to be an anathema to Duke. Duke's reputation before the community required it.

The chairman of Duke's board of trustees, Robert K. Steel, told one of the boys' defenders that it would be "best for Duke" if they were tried. "Best for Duke." It wouldn't matter if there were convictions, because "it could all be sorted out on appeal." Blatantly innocent students (proven so by DNA tests two weeks before the first arrests in the case were made) should have to bear the burden of public opprobrium, a vindictive and (in Durham) biased trial, and possible conviction — all because it would be "best for Duke." As Steel also allegedly said to fellow trustees, Duke was not defending its students because "sometimes people have to suffer for the good of the organization."

That organization reserved all its animus for its own; it never had a bad word for Nifong, the disgraced and dismissed prosecutor, nor for the false accuser. In fact, it cooperated with the prosecutor, handing over private student information in violation of FERPA and then lying about it to the court, not to mention joining with Nifong to initiate a sham motion for the same information in order to make it appear as if Duke was actually following the law.

We have similar cases of universities more concerned with their image and bilking millions from their alumni through their sports programs. The most recent are; The University of Southern California where the coach and athletic director knew they were breaking the rules in the Reggie Bush case. The athletic director was fired and the coach, Pete Carroll, took a multi-million dollar head coach with the Seattle Sea Hawks after the NCAA sanctions destroyed USC’s football program. Ohio State and the University of Washington have recently suffered similar sanctions. A case at Auburn is still pending.

As I have written colleges and Universities are big business. They bilk their alumni for millions and covet the rich TV contracts they can get for having high profile winning football and basketball teams. They constantly increase tuitions due to the availability of money from federal backed student loans and have lobbyists on “K” Street to obtain federal grant money. They hire and retain professors they don’t need to teach courses that will not allow those graduating from those courses to pay back the thousands of dollars in student loans because there are no jobs in that field except becoming a professor who will teach the same useless course at another college.

Perhaps it’s time for a revamping and scaling down of our higher education system. Not everyone needs to go to college to get a job and those going to college should be more concerned with supporting themselves in the future than protesting and social activism.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with theJohnwooden legendary basketball coach John Wooten. Wooten was not only a great coach, he was a great man. During our conversation one of my colleagues, who was with me, asked Wooten what he thought of college basketball today. Mr. Wooten thought for a few moments and then replied that he would not to have anything to do with the game. He felt it had deteriorated to an unpaid minor league for professional basketball that was filled administrators, coaches, and most of all players more concerned with money than scholastics and sportsmanship.

I wonder what John Wooten would have to say about the Penn State scandal today. In some ways I am glad he is no longer with us and does not have to witness the state of college athletics today.

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