The wreckage of a TV news van Wednesday night may be the best visual metaphor for the tangled, sad, disturbing and depressing rubble that was once the mighty reputation of Penn State University.
Over a matter of days the once Pine-Sol-scrubbed image of an institution devoted to higher learning and a seamless blend of academics and athletics is mired in the backwash of scandal and rot. It’s a sewer system malfunction of the highest order — by far the worst incident involving a college sports program in my lifetime — perhaps ever.
And it could have been avoided.
Yes, the problems at State College Pa., where the football team plays in a place called Happy Valley for a coach who had been there since 1949 and lionized every step of the way, didn’t have to play out like this. It’s a textbook case of the wrong action being taken for sorry reasons. It started that way and it continues to, well, now. I say now because the firing of the college president Graham Spanier along with coach Joe Paterno is far from the end of this sordid and lurid affair. There will be more firings, lawsuits, hand-wringing, accusations and retribution. In many ways, the nightmare for Penn State’s Board of Trustees, which fired Paterno by telephone in the middle of the night Wednesday touching off a campus riot, is only beginning.
And so far, the trustees aren’t off to the best start. In fact, they wrote another chapter Wednesday in what will become a huge book called “What Not to do when Scandal Pays a Call.”
From the start when a graduate assistant came to Paterno in 2002 with a story about a former Penn State assistant coach molesting a young boy in the school’s locker-room and continuing to the post-10 p.m. announced firing of Paterno, which led to a shocking outbreak of violence and vandalism usually only seen in large cities after wins or losses in major sports events, the school’s top administrators and leaders embarked upon a series of missteps, bad judgment calls, public relations disasters and a mind-boggling lack of institutional control.
It’s like all involved entered a fugue state.
And while they fiddled, other children were allegedly molested, according to an indictment of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
When originally informed of the eyewitness account of Sandusky’s alleged actions, Paterno rightly informed his athletics director. It was the minimum required action and might have been enough, but Paterno at that point let the matter drop, which was clearly wrong, misguided and out of touch with the allegations involved — that an innocent boy was allegedly raped in an area under his watch. He didn’t check back to monitor the status of any internal investigation into the actions by his longtime friend, he didn’t alert other authorities when he found that nothing would be done short of barring Sandusky from the university’s locker facilities and he didn’t attempt to get help for someone clearly in need of some.
Then Paterno pretty much welcomed Sandusky to remain in contact with his football players. Over the next nine years, Sandusky was someone Penn State players knew well and were guided to in order to volunteer with his charitable organization that involved associations with young boys.
According to the indictment, It’s where Sandusky, the alleged predator, was allowed to hunt apparently with Paterno’s blessing. He certainly didn’t send up any red flags about it and tacitly approved it by sending members of his football team to work with Sandusky.
Beyond the banishment of Sandusky, university officials above Paterno took no action — which a grand jury has determined is criminal malfeasance. Rightly so. How do people in command at a major university look the other way when allegations of raping children is the issue at hand. My only hunch there is the pressure to protect the university took precedent over common sense, moral decency and simple right or wrong.
Wednesday morning, Paterno clearly tried to pre-empt action by the university’s Board of Trustees by announcing that he would retire at the end of the season. It’s something the 84-year-old coach perhaps should have done a decade or so ago when the highly respected program began an obvious slippage. He sometimes seemed addled, but remained determined to stay — with what appear to be predictable results. He wanted to go out on his own terms, even when faced by unspeakable scandal.
The trustees, however, would have none of. But they didn’t help matters much by announcing Paterno’s immediate ouster after 10 p.m. when the campus was already roiled by media attention, the intensity of the allegations and blind allegiance to the football team and its storied coach. The ensuing riot was the pretty predictable result of an action announced in haste to meet some non-existent goal of satiating demand largely driven by the media.
The firing could’ve been announced the next morning, during daylight hours and when students are in class and outside troublemakers less likely to converge and create more problems.
As things stand now, Sandusky, who announced his retirement from Penn State in June 1999, maintained his innocence through his lawyer. The athletics director Tim Curley has taken a leave of absence and university vice president Gary Schultz has decided to step down. They also say they are innocent.
Paterno faces no criminal charges, but won’t be able to coach his 12th-ranked team again this season or ever.
And now the trustees go about the task of navigating the treacherous territory ahead. There is a long road for Penn State to travel back to respectability and trust.
I just hope they’ve learned from past mistakes.