November 16, 2011

Penn St. football: Should it die?

“They should just kill the program–end it right now.”
That was my dad’s reaction to the gruesome allegations coming out of Penn State University (PSU). On Nov. 5, former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges that he used his charity, The Second Mile, to sexually abuse at-risk youth. A graphic 23-page grand jury indictment detailed the abuse of eight victims which one witness, a Korean War veteran and janitor working in the football building, described as something “I’ll never forget.’”
PSU football should be buried, my dad said. Those implicated should probably all be in prison and the so-called “legacy” of 84-year-old Joe Paterno, head coach since 1966, should be slapped with a big enough asterisk to cast a shadow over each of his record 409 wins.
My opinions were much less concrete. I thought we were surely missing something. How could that many adults have so miserably failed their university, and most importantly, kids who looked up to them? How could such gruesome allegations, some of which stemmed from as far back as 1994, have been kept quiet for so long? How could graduate assistant Mike McQueary, now a member of PSU’s coaching staff, have witnessed a 10-year-old being sodomized and not intervened or contacted the police?
And most befuddling: Why was Jerry Sandusky given keys to PSU facilities as part of his retirement package and listed on the university website as a professor emeritus just days before his arrest?

Mesmerized by tradition
This column was tough to write. Oftentimes when the right words feel elusive, I go to my dad. The man has a knack for dissecting things, be it politics or trade rumors, picking them apart. But his perspective here felt weighed down by a certain irony – we both share an almost unhealthy love for sports.
In the case of the PSU scandal, therein lies the problem. The mystique and blinding idealism behind PSU football was what enabled the whole awful chain of events. It drove PSU students to organize protests in favor of Paterno, rather than to empathize with the victims. It was why fans from across the country took to Facebook and Twitter to do the same (see ‘Scandal consumes Penn State football’ by Gabe Ayers, Nov. 9, 2011.) The PSU board of trustees voted to fire Paterno just hours after he had announced his plans to retire at the end of the season.
That made the story all the more compelling. ‘Linebacker U’ was largely engineered by the defensive schemes of Sandusky, but it was also the exception in the crooked world of college sports. The backs of PSU jerseys lacked players’ names. They were never sanctioned for recruiting violations in the same conference as Michigan and Ohio State. They played hard-nosed football. They did things the right way.
But above all, they won.

An unlikely villain
In a lot of ways, the more you learn about the Sandusky case, the less you know and the less you understand.
Sandusky is the father of six. He graduated from PSU number one in his class in 1966. He was Paterno’s most trusted assistant for nearly three decades, and was once considered the heir apparent as the head coach at PSU. The Second Mile, which Sandusky founded in 1977, boasts a cast of celebrity supporters and raised over $1.2 million in gifts, grants and contributions in 2010.
So when McQueary met with Paterno in 2002 to discuss the Sandusky incident, both parties likely felt a certain disbelief. That is, unless the university already had suspicion that Sandusky was a threat to children.
In 1998, PSU campus police investigated claims that Sandusky had made inappropriate contact with a minor. Sandusky inexplicably stepped down as defensive coordinator just a year later. The grand jury indictment asserts that the Second Mile was aware of the investigation.
Then why did PSU officials not take the second round of allegations more seriously?
Paterno sympathizers say he fulfilled his duty in notifying athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schulz, both of whom have since stepped down.
But even in his last days as head coach Paterno’s words stung with insincerity. Students gathered in front of his home the night before he was fired, chanting, “We want Joe.” Paterno walked across his lawn basking in the fanfare.
“The kids that were victims, or whatever they want to say,” Paterno said. “I think we ought to say a prayer for them. Tough life when people do certain things to you.”

A changing legacy
The rubble that continues to pile in light of the Penn State football scandal should serve as a cautionary tale. Winning is like a drug; sports are the dealer. Consistent success becomes almost impossible to let go. And when men and institutions are treated like gods, incapable and immune from mistakes, scrutiny and consequences, it is naïve to think that that power will not be abused. The Jerry Sandusky saga is revolting, infuriating, haunting and tragic. Only time will tell if Paterno played a more complicit role.
But if the worst is proven, let Joe Pa, his legacy and the program he built be damned.

Matt McKinney
Matt McKinney is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. His experience with journalism ranges from a year as co-sports editor for TKS to an internship with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he used his Spanish language skills to report a front-page story on changes to federal immigration policy. He has also written for The Galesburg Register-Mail and Knox’s Office of Communications. Matt is the recipient of the 2012 Knox College Kimble Prize for Feature Journalism and two awards from the Illinois College Press Association, including a first place award for sports game coverage. He is currently interning virtually with The Tampa Bay Times and will pursue his master's next year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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