Pennalty State

Today the NCAA announced the sanctions it is imposing on Penn State for its role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.  The sanctions are extraordinary, but is the punishment appropriate to the extraordinary circumstances that surrounded the Sandusky scandal?

For starters, Penn State will have to pay a $60 million fine — representing one year of revenue from its football program — to external programs aimed at preventing child sexual abuse or helping the victims of such abuse.  The NCAA also barred Penn State’s football program from bowl games for five years, cut Penn State’s available scholarships for four years, and vacated all of Penn State’s many football wins since 1998.  The latter penalty means that Joe Paterno will not be officially recognized as the winningest coach in college football history.

The NCAA’s response to the Penn State situation is unprecedented, because the Penn State situation was unprecedented.  This wasn’t the normal NCAA investigative scenario, where players or coaches violated rules about getting money, or selling merchandise, or making too many recruiting visits.  Penn State’s issue didn’t involve cheating, or doing whatever it took to put a winning team on the field.  Instead, Penn State’s problem was deeper and more insidious.  The many problems highlighted in the Freeh report reflect an institution, an athletic department, and a football program that was protecting its own, and thereby protecting its reputation, even at the expense of overlooking horrendous criminal misconduct involving children.  I’m not sure that any sanctions the NCAA could impose could truly deal appropriately with what happened at Penn State.

Penn State has indicated that it will accept the sanctions, and it probably is secretly relieved that the penalties were not even more draconian.  Some Penn State fans are irate at the sanctions, but those people care more about their football fixations than they do about Penn State, the institution.  The institution clearly needs to change its focus and reorient its priorities.  Allowing years to pass before Penn State’s football program can again climb to the top of the college football heap will give the University time to do just that.

One other point should be made:  those sports fans who hated Penn State’s football team, and envied its success, shouldn’t view the NCAA’s actions today as a cause for celebration or mockery.  Such behavior is almost as inexcusable at Penn State’s many failures.  There is nothing to celebrate here, and no crass jokes should be made.  Penn State’s story is one of big-time college athletics gone horribly awry.  Every college with a big-time athletic program should be looking to learn a lesson from what happened, and more importantly what didn’t happen, in State College, Pennsylvania.

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Living In The Land Of Enablers

Psychologists and substance abuse counselors often refer to “enablers” — those who, in a misguided attempt to help, enable addicts to continue their self-destructive behavior by making excuses for them or helping them dodge the consequences of their conduct.

Sometimes I wonder if America has become a land of enablers.  How often do you hear people respond to news of failures by others by making excuses or attacking the person who delivers the news?  Whether the fault lies with their children, their chosen political candidates, or the school or church they support, people are often much too willing to condone or cover up misdeeds.  It’s as if the enabler’s identity becomes so wrapped up with the politician, or school, that they simply cannot accept the possibility of failure — and therefore the blame inevitably must lie elsewhere.

I thought of this when I saw the reaction of some Penn State fans to the recently released Freeh report on the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.  Even though the report was commissioned by the University’s Board of Trustees and was based on hundreds of interviews and scrutiny of extensive documentary evidence by neutral third parties, many Penn State fans refuse to accept the magnitude and meaning of the enormous institutional problems spotlighted by the report.  They dismiss the report as a hatchet job, with conclusions motivated by some elusive, lurking ulterior motive, or argue that the report’s conclusions are based on evidence that wouldn’t be admissible in a court of law.  Aren’t such attempts to explain away the obvious just another example of enabling behavior?

As psychologists and substance abuse counselors will attest, enabling behavior doesn’t help the abuser — it just allows him to move farther and faster on that downward spiral.  Far better to hold the person, or the institution, accountable for their failures and their misdeeds, and recognize that there is nothing wrong with blaming the blameworthy.  We shouldn’t be so ready to go all in for the politician, or celebrity, or football coach, to the point where our reflexive willingness to make excuses begins to say more about us than it does about the struggling person whose conduct we are foolishly enabling.

Irate At Penn State

The report issued today about the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal — and the egregious institutional failures at Penn State that permitted Sandusky to continue to act as a sexual predator for years — is a thoroughly damning document.  Investigators led by former FBI director Louis Freeh conducted more than 400 interviews and found from the evidence they collected that University leaders showed a shocking disregard for the interests of Sandusky’s victims.

In  prepared statement, Freeh said:  “Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State.  The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”  Instead, Freeh states, former Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and former head football coach Joe Paterno, upon learning of the infamous incident involving Sandusky and a young boy in a shower, concealed facts, consciously decided not to report Sandusky’s conduct to authorities, and made no attempt to even identify — much less help — the young boy who was the victim of Sandusky’s depredation.  The report also implicates Penn State’s former president, who was ousted in the wake of the scandal, and the University’s Board of Trustees.  According to the CNN article linked above, however, none of the Board’s 32 trustees plans to resign, notwithstanding their failure to exercise the oversight that is the reason for the Board’s existence in the first place.

The report is just another disturbing chapter in what has become an increasingly troubling story — not just of the appalling criminal conduct of one man, but of a previously respected academic institution that completely lost its way and was unable to behave responsibly, morally, and ethically when confronted with evidence of that criminal conduct.  With every revelation of cover-ups and blame-shifting by Penn State officials and employees, the focus shifts away from the vile Sandusky and toward the compromised and corrupted University.  The fact that none of the Penn State trustees is willing to do the decent thing, and resign in recognition of their failures, is just another sign of Penn State’s fundamental accountability problems.

If I were a Penn State alum or student, or even a citizen of the state that allows the University to carry its name, I would insist on a thorough housecleaning that swept out the University administration, from trustees on down, and brought in people who know that, as leaders of an important academic and cultural institution, their first duty must be to act as responsible members of society.  Apparently, that’s a lesson that needs learning in State College, Pennsylvania.

Paterno’s Legacy

ESPN is reporting that Joe Paterno is dead at 85.  According to the story, he died this morning after fighting a two-month battle against lung cancer.

Paterno was a legendary coach who took the Penn State program to the pinnacle of college football, but his legacy will be forever tarnished by the alleged child sex abuse scandal involving long-time assistant Jerry Sandusky — and by Paterno’s apparent failure to respond appropriately to reports about Sandusky’s conduct.

By all accounts, Paterno was a generous man who gave huge sums to Penn State.  He was intensely loyal to that institution.  He was loved by players and fans and students.  During his long coaching career, he became a true college football icon.

I’m sure that many will argue that his many positive contributions far outweigh his what they consider to be his lapse in judgment about Sandusky.  That is a calculation that can’t be made today, tomorrow, or for some time — at least until after the criminal trials are held and the full story about the Sandusky scandal, and its impact on the poor boys who evidently were the subject of Sandusky’s attention and who were so ill-served by those in positions of authority, is told by witnesses testifying under oath.  The passage of time allows for perspective and understanding that is impossible to obtain when events are raw and recent.

It’s important not to forget Paterno’s good deeds, but it’s also important not to whitewash or overlook his missteps, too.  Human beings are complex and imperfect, and Paterno’s story is further evidence of that — as if we needed any.

Stay Classy, Buckeye Nation!

This afternoon the Ohio State Buckeyes play a home game at the Horseshoe against the Penn State Nittany Lions.  Normally this would just be another hard-fought Big Ten game — but, in the midst of the awful scandal that has rocked Penn State, these are not normal times.

There obviously is nothing funny about allegations of child molestation or claims of institutional disregard of unlawful behavior — and there is nothing clever about purported jokes about such things, either.  In the raucous world of big time college football, however, stupid things can get said, stupid signs can be made, and stupid taunts can be hurled.  The people who do such stupid things are only reflecting badly on themselves and by extension, the school whose gear they are wearing.

As someone who is proud of Ohio State and my OSU degree, I hope that the members of Buckeye Nation at the game today show some class, simply cheer for their team, and leave the poor, bewildered, bedeviled Penn State fans alone.

Adding To The Agony

I was enormously saddened to see that Penn State students rioted after the school, correctly, relieved head coach Joe Paterno and the University’s president of their jobs.

Penn State is at the center of a scandal that has given the school a terrible black eye.  The University can’t change the past, but it can try to avoid compounding the problem.  When students riot because a football coach, no matter how legendary, was sacked as part of a general housecleaning in the wake of a dreadful child sex-abuse scandal, they display a gross lack of sensitivity to the core issues and to the alleged victims of the abuse — a lack of sensitivity that some might conclude contributed to the environment that allowed the scandalous behavior to occur, and endure, in the first place.

Penn State is a fine school, but it needs to take a close look at itself as an institution.  Firing the school’s president and football coach is only a first step.  What Penn State needs to determine is whether there are broader cultural forces at work, and if so how to best deal with those forces.  Nationwide news coverage of chaotic scenes of students rioting and turning over a TV station news van isn’t a good start in the effort to repair the school’s reputation, and its soul.