This was not how I expected to introduce the “college” category to Football Perspective.
Following the release of the Freeh Report, the depth of college football’s ugliest scandal appears deeper and darker than ever before. For those who have not followed the story closely, Matt Hinton does his typical excellent job bringing us up to speed.
The full report into Penn State’s response to allegations of sexual abuse by longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, following an eight-month investigation overseen by former FBI director Louis Freeh, fills 267 excruciating pages. But to put the finishing touches on the obliteration of a half-century of goodwill, it only took 163 words:
The evidence shows that these four men also knew about a 1998 criminal investigation of Sandusky relating to suspected sexual misconduct with a young boy in a Penn State football locker room shower. Again, they showed no concern about that victim. The evidence shows that Mr. Paterno was made aware of the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, followed it closely, but failed to take any action, even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years, and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s.
At the very least, Mr. Paterno could have alerted the entire football staff, in order to prevent Sandusky from bringing another child into the Lasch Building. Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley also failed to alert the Board of Trustees about the 1998 investigation or take any further action against Mr. Sandusky. None of them even spoke to Sandusky about his conduct. In short, nothing was done and Sandusky was allowed to continue with impunity.
That is an excerpt from the seven-page press release summarizing the findings in the full report. It is a bombshell. The four men in question are former Penn State president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley, former administrator Gary Schultz and former head coach Joe Paterno. All four lost their jobs and their reputations last November over their apparently negligent reaction to an allegation against Sandusky in 2001; Curley and Schultz also face serious criminal charges stemming from that incident. Now, in light of confirmation that the most powerful men on campus had been confronted with the same charges against one of their own at least three years earlier, negligence is the least of their sins.
First, the facts. In 1998, an allegation by the mother of an 11-year-old boy (later identified in court documents as “Victim 6”) who claimed Sandusky had sexually assaulted him in a locker room shower led to an investigation by Penn State campus police and local law enforcement. That investigation resulted in a 95-page police report – but no charges against Sandusky.
Crucially, Spanier, Curley and Paterno later claimed to have no knowledge of the 1998 investigation into Sandusky, nor of the accusation that prompted it. By their accounts, they had no reason to suspect Sandusky of any wrongdoing (criminal or otherwise) prior to his retirement from Paterno’s staff in 1999. Freeh said today there is no evidence that Sandusky was forced out, and e-mails cited in the report indicate Paterno had no problem with his former player and longtime colleague continuing to serve as defensive coordinator. Following his retirement, Sandusky maintained “emeritus” status and regular access to university facilities. By all outward appearances, he remained a respected coach and upstanding citizen, venerated for his decades of work with troubled kids, and no one at Penn State – certainly not Joe Paterno, the most venerated man in American sports – had any reason to suspect otherwise. At least, until 2001.
Even by that account, the one in which everyone around Sandusky is completely oblivious to who he really was, there is no defense for the inaction that followed the 2001 accusation by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who claims he personally witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy in a locker room shower. McQueary subsequently reported the incident to Paterno; Paterno ran it up the ladder to Curley, who consulted with Shultz, spoke with McQueary and ultimately let Sandusky off with a warning.
According to the Freeh Report, “the only known, intervening factor between the decision made on February 25, 2001, by Messrs. Spanier, Curley and Schulz to report the incident to the Department of Public Welfare, and then agreeing not to do so on February 27th, was Mr. Paterno’s February 26th conversation with Mr. Curley.” In short, nothing was done and Sandusky was allowed to continue with impunity. What could possibly be more damning than that?
Only this: That Penn State had already allowed Sandusky to operate with impunity for years even before McQueary came forward. If today’s report is correct – if “the evidence shows that Mr. Paterno was made aware of the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, followed it closely, but failed to take any action” – Paterno had had every reason to suspect that Sandusky was a violent predator for at least three years when McQueary walked into his office. Yet did nothing when those suspicions were confirmed, and did nothing for the next decade. The report could not have leveled a more devastating charge. The old man already knew.
In a sober, well-crafted response to the Freeh Report released this morning, Paterno’s family describes Sandusky as “a great deceiver,” and maintains that “many people didn’t fully understand what was happening and underestimated or misinterpreted events.” But after the report, there is only one possible interpretation. Joe Paterno and other Penn State officials continued to tolerate and to some extent shelter an alleged sex offender despite multiple, credible accusers over the course of more than a decade.
Paterno’s legacy goes from being a romantic one to a complicated one, as Joe Ponsnanski is painfully finding out right now. The reputations of Spanier, Schultz and Curley are forever tarnished, and we don’t need to rehash what will become of Sandusky. But for some, the judicial system is not enough, and there are those calling for Penn State football to get the “Death Penalty”, effectively suspending the entire football program. Such measures are fueled in part by the “I can top you with my moral outrage” expressed my some media members, and part by the insufficient way justice could ever be delivered in this situation.
I agree with Andy Staples’ take: “Unless the NCAA finds evidence of broken bylaws, it needs to keep its nose out of an issue beyond its purview. Absolute power corrupted absolutely here, but not specifically because this happened in the football building. Powerful people attempt to protect their power in any large institution.” To use another Staples analogy, it would be like asking the IRS to punish murderers who pay their taxes because, well, they’re murderers.
We don’t need the IRS to punish murderers because we have a legal system to do just that. Here, our country’s justice system feels inadequate for many, leaving a thirst for vengeance that goes far beyond imprisoning Sandusky for the rest of his life and delivering prison sentences to Curley and Schultz, too. Spanier should and likely will face criminal charges. But that won’t add up to a pound of flesh in many eyes. Because the NCAA frequently and arbitrarily hands out punishments, some look for them to act in this case. But this is less about college football than it is about celebrity status and power.
This scandal took place in State College, Pennsylvania, but it didn’t have to. It could have been perpetrated by the CFO, CEO and majority of the Board of Directors of a Fortune 500 company (call it “Company F”). If those members of Company F were the main characters in the story instead of Sandusky, Paterno, Spanier, Curley and Schultz,, the narrative would be the same. The CEO found out that the CFO was committing these horrible crimes, but covered it up to protect Company F’s stock price. The Board knew about it, but didn’t want to ruin the Company’s reputation, and after all, why punish the stockholders? After the story breaks, however, the response wouldn’t be to delist the Company from its exchange. The proper response is to punish those responsible, harshly. But it wouldn’t be the SEC’s place to blow up Company F any more than it’s the NCAA’s place to blow up the Penn State football program.
Or, perhaps more interestingly, consider if this happened to an NFL team. The same circumstances and “culture” are in place in Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and dozens of cities across America that house professional football teams. If it was discovered that at Team X, the defensive coordinator had been using his position to sodomize young boys, we would be outraged. We’d be further outraged if we found out that the head coach, general manager and team owner knew about it. But after the facts were brought to light, the natural response wouldn’t be to eliminate the team. It would be to bring those men to justice.
It’s natural to wonder how the NCAA can punish those for getting free sneakers but not punish Penn State for these unspeakable acts. Ultimately, it’s not that much different than why O.J. Simpson is in the Hall of Fame and Pete Rose is not. Betting on baseball games isn’t the most egregious crime in the world, but it is an egregious crime against baseball. If instead of his dogfighting scandal, we found out that Mike Vick was taking performance enhancing drugs, the reactions would have been very different. Many would argue for an asterisk beside Vick’s records, and if he had won a Super Bowl, that such trophy would be forever tarnished. But that’s not because that taking steroids is more morally bankrupt than brutally killing dogs; it would be an egregious crime against football, not against society. What Sandusky and the men in power permitted was an egregious crime against humanity, not against football. Four of the major players involved — Sandusky, Curley, Schultz and Spanier — are no longer affiliated with the school and have been or will be dealt with by the legal system. The fifth, Paterno, is being dealt with as harshly as society can deal with the deceased. Unfortunately, punishing those responsible is all we can do to quench the thirst we all felt after hearing these reports.
Canceling a football program for non-football reasons? That’s far outside the NCAA’s purview, an organization whose power few would want to increase. The NCAA generally punishes programs that obtain competitive advantages in violation of the most holy of collegiate athletic principles: players should not get paid. If Cecil Newton wants to shop his son for $180,000, and a school wants to pay him, that school is getting an unfair advantage over the schools that play by the rules. SMU was paying its players, giving the Mustangs an unfair advantage. Ohio State was giving its athletes improper benefits, which is essentially a non-financial recruiting tactic used because they can’t directly pay players. USC would have Snoop Dogg at practice to entice recruits to come, and looked the other way as Reggie Bush’s mother got a free house. Again, those acts put other schools that presumably play by the rules at a competitive disadvantage. When you are giving improper benefits to athletes, you are creating an unfair playing field. Generally, after being caught, those teams have their wins vacated, wiped from the record books as if they did not occur. These violations are not illegal (although they may be tied up with other illegal acts), of course: that’s precisely why the NCAA is asked to step in.
Obviously, Penn State doesn’t have a leg up on other schools as a result of its scandal. The Nittany Lions aren’t going to forfeit games from the ’98 season, or vacate their 2008 Big Ten Championship. To the contrary, the future of the program has a dark shadow over it, without the need for the NCAA to step in. Without punishing the Program, some will be disappointed. But Paterno and Curley have already punished the program by their actions and inactions. This wasn’t a case of them trying to break the rules to help out the program, but rather them discarding everything — including the future health of the program — to protect themselves. The protagonists in this scandal all decided that covering themselves, and avoiding being dismissed by their university or being imprisoned, was more important than stopping a monster from preying on young children. Now, the legal system will intervene and bring justice as best it can. But there’s no need for the NCAA to punish a program that’s embarrassed and horrified by these events other than to satisfy an insatiable thirst for vengeance.
[There is an entirely separate issue of whether in fact the NCAA has the authority to punish Penn State, in any way, for what happened. I’m not sure that they do. The ‘lack of institutional control’ hammer that the NCAA has used in the past is only applicable when a violation of NCAA rules has been found. To date, as callous as it may sound, there has been no violation of NCAA rules alleged against the university. While some have thrown out the vague power of the NCAA to bend the rules and do whatever it wants, the association is still bound by its own rules. They may be creative, but it’s far from clear that even if they have the authority to punish the Penn State program. Practically speaking, the NCAA moves at a glacial pace, and I suspect any investigation done by it would not be complete until well after the demands for action have subsided, and the death penalty will probably be off the table.]