You aren’t going to like this post.
You may, in fact, be tempted to say I’m a Penn State apologist, or that I’m not being appropriately sensitive towards the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s stunning and repulsive crimes.
Before you do — don’t. I’m going to do nothing that suggests that Sandusky or the men responsible for covering up their crimes aren’t guilty. Jerry Sandusky is going to die in prison; that’s the fate he deserves and I would never suggest otherwise.
What I will suggest is this: A lot of other people are getting punished — athletes at Penn State, kids who need athletic scholarships to get a college education, business owners in State College — and they had nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky.
Who isn’t being punished, at least not yet? Graham Spanier. Gary Schultz. Tim Curley. Who aren’t we asking enough questions about? The university’s board of trustees. Gov. Tom Corbett.
I suspect this is going to be something of a mess by the time I’m done. I hope you’ll stick with me for a few minutes.
The wrong people.
Current football players. Current football coaches. Students. Alumni. Business owners.
All people who had absolutely nothing to do with the Jerry Sandusky scandal. And all people who are going to suffer because of the NCAA’s rash decision to club Penn State into submission.
In issuing its penalty to Penn State, the NCAA ignored its own policies dealing with major violations — NCAA President Mark Emmert cited the “Lack of Institutional Control” as one of a couple reasons for pursuing Penn State — and came up with a “solution” that is almost entirely collateral damage.
Generally — and I know this from recent experience — the NCAA takes time to conduct an investigation, once it is informed about a potential violation. Charges are presented to the school, which has an opportunity to respond. There is a hearing. And then the committee on infractions — again, a body I have become familiar with — issues its ruling, along with penalties.
There is also an opportunity to appeal, although I don’t know of any that have ever been successful.
That’s the NCAA’s version of due process. I don’t know of fans of any school who have been particularly happy once the committee issues its final opinion, but there it is; you school was charged, and you went through the months-long quasi-judicial process.
We didn’t get that in this case, though; we got a rushed penalty, a severe one — and that one was an alternative to a multi-year death penalty. It damages nearly everyone connected with Penn State — except for the people responsible for the crimes and the cover up.
There is always collateral damage when the NCAA issues a ruling — you can ask Ohio State’s seniors how they feel about not playing a postseason game this year — but this touches too many people.
It’s impressive to see the number of players who are sticking with Penn State, in part because I couldn’t blame them for leaving. And with the loss of scholarships, the football is going to get steadily worse — and that’s where the potential for real damage awaits.
Wait, say, for three years. Penn State could not only be struggling with Indiana, but beating the MAC schools it has on its schedule might be tough. A natural reaction? Ticket sales drop off. People stop coming to games. And they stop getting hotel rooms, eating at restaurants, visiting beer distributorships, buying sweatshirts and hot dogs and Cokes. Are students alone enough to keep those businesses afloat? Business owners in town have already spoken up — and the answer is no.
And then when football revenue drops, what happens to the sports that rely on the $60 million the program brings in annually? That’s easy. They disappear. Scholarships? Gone. There’s no way to know how many of those kids needed that ride to get a college education — and thanks to the NCAA, we won’t find out.
What did those kids have to do with Jerry Sandusky? Should the business owners in town be held responsible? What justice is done by punishing those people?
The right people.
One — Jerry Sandusky — is in jail. Two — Gary Schultz and Tim Curley — face criminal charges. Another — Graham Spanier — hasn’t yet been charged, and if we’re accepting the Freeh report as gospel, those charges had better come soon.
What did the NCAA ruling do to them? Nothing. What could the NCAA have done? Lifetime bans from member schools. Show-cause orders. But while Emmert said he was willing to accept the Freeh report as providing plenty of evidence to punish Penn State — and, by extension, pretty much all of Centre County — he wasn’t willing to do the same for the individuals involved.
And that makes absolutely no sense to me. On one hand, the NCAA has enough information to issue what is arguably the steepest penalties it’s ever doled out to a member university, and it was certain enough to do so without bothering with pesky details like its own investigation or hearings; on the other, it refused to do anything to punish the people who were responsible. To be plain — that’s wrong.
And I haven’t heard much discussion about holding members of the university’s board of trustees accountable for the actions of their school’s administrators, either. I will grant that it’s perhaps tough to act when you’re not getting the information you need, but shouldn’t the board’s leadership have asked more questions? Isn’t that why they hold the positions they hold? If we want justice in this case, if we want to know how the cover up happened and who should be held responsible, we should be asking questions about the board.
And if you’re convinced that you need a pound of flesh from the university itself, you’re going to get it. Penn State will likely take out a loan to cover the $60 million fine levied by the NCAA; the university will be paying on that for a long time. I’d be stunned if each of Sandusky’s victims doesn’t seek a civil penalty against the university; again, those will be significant financial investments. And finally, when the U.S. Department of Education completes its investigation of potential violations of the Cleary Act — a federal law requiring universities to report crimes on campus, something that apparently wasn’t done at Penn State in the case of the Sandusky incidents and others — there could be other sanctions, like fines — up to $27,000 per violation — and lost federal aid for the school.
That’s $60 million up front. The potential for millions more. I wouldn’t call that getting off lightly.
Current Penn State governor Tom Corbett served as the state’s attorney general from 1995 through 1997 and again from 2004 until 2011, when he took his current office. He also served as the United States attorney for the district that includes Pittsburgh from 1989 until 1993. He was always a no-nonsense prosecutor, and he built his career on chasing predators of children, even establishing a special unit to investigate those crimes as attorney general.
He became one of the university’s most vocal critics after the Sandusky grand jury issued its findings of fact in November. He urged the board of trustees — the governor automatically has a seat on the board, but until November Corbett had not attended a meeting — to fire Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier back then, and he’s continued with tough talk about Penn State since, especially about how officials there dragged their feet when they should have taken action.
And that’s an interesting point.
The Sandusky grand jury was convened in 2008, after a parent of one of Sandusky’s victims came forward; that kicked off an investigation that continued until last fall, when the grand jury issued its presentment.
Could there have been charges filed at that point, in time to get Sandusky off the streets and away from other victims? For whatever reason, Corbett’s office — and presumably Corbett — didn’t pursue that route. Could he have filed charges when another parent came forward in 2009, when the parent of another victim approached the attorney general’s office? For whatever reason, the answer was no — and the assaults continued.
The interesting thing here is the interest that Corbett took in the case in 2011, after he had been sworn in as governor, versus the years before, when he was running — and in need of money from donors. Many of his best donors — to the tune of $641,000 — had connections with the Second Mile, the charity to help at-risk youth founded by Sandusky, either as board members of the organization or as people who had donated money to the non-profit. Was Corbett putting off the prosecution of Sandusky so he could rely on the financial support of his political friends who supported Second Mile and, presumably, Sandusky?
The governor has so far refused to answer any questions about his relationship with Second Mile donors and board members and the role that played in his decision to hand the Sandusky investigation over to a grand jury. In fact, he’s been condescending and dismissive with anyone who has asked. Those questions will continue and if the governor wants to be re-elected, he’s going to have to answer them at some point.
And I can’t wait to hear what he says.
For me, this is the hard part.
I admired Joe Paterno. For years that was based on football alone. He ran a clean program and he graduated players, and he did both of those things while taking what could have been a relic of days long past — the heyday of eastern college football — and not only kept his school relevant but won championships along the way. And when I visited State College in January, to cover how the school and the town mourned Paterno in the days after he died, I was told by students and townies over and over what he meant to that community. Nearly everyone I spoke with talked about the person before they spoke about the football coach.
My Penn State friends point out that the Freeh report contains no direct evidence connecting Paterno to the Sandusky cover up. No emails or letters with his name. Only mentions that would qualify as hearsay in court.
And technically, that’s true.
They want to believe in the guy. As a kid who idolized Woody Hayes, I understand that.
But I always get stuck here: He knew. Football coaches know. Football coaches don’t lose their top assistants to sudden, unexpected retirements without asking questions. Football coaches hold on to their positions for decades because they’re in control of their programs, and they know the details of what’s going on in their building, in their offices, on the practice field and in the locker room.
I want to be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am. He knew.
And outside of the crimes themselves, that’s the most disappointing thing about this entire affair to me.
As I mentioned previously, there are just a few people talking about what Corbett did — or didn’t do — in relation to the Sandusky case, and that’s something that needs to be corrected. Something that no one is talking about is the fact that Penn State is almost completely exempt from Pennsylvania’s open records laws; there is a decent chance that if that was not the case in 1998, the Sandusky case would have had just one victim — and there would have been little opportunity for a cover up.
Pennsylvania’s public universities are part of a two-tiered system. Most of the schools — the smaller ones, like Slippery Rock or IUP — are state-owned and governed. Penn State — along with Pitt, Lincoln University and Temple — are state-related universities; they receive state tax money, their employees are receiving state-issued paychecks and state-managed pensions when they retire. This distinction means those four universities are essentially a public/private hybrid; it also means they claim, with the apparent support of the people in Harrisburg who run the commonwealth, they are not subject to the state’s open records laws.
And that’s outrageous.
Reporters were able to request copies of Jim Tressel’s emails — albeit redacted versions — once Ohio State’s scandal broke last year. It’s hard to say for sure whether a journalist would have followed up on rumblings about Sandusky when he abruptly retired in 1998, but I bet someone would have. And if that reporter filed a records request and received the correspondence included in the Freeh report — the ones discussing how Sandusky’s “retirement” should be handled — I think there’s a pretty good chance that Sandusky would have been in prison for more than a decade by now.
But as it stood — and as it still stands — any reporters who would have filed that request in 1998 would have received a simple answer from Penn State: “No.” And there’s nothing they could have done about it.
Want to ensure there’s a meaningful change at Penn State? Want to make sure something like this will never happen again? Make sure the state’s flagship university is subject to the same records laws as its state-owned universities, school boards, and municipal governments.
Emmert said over and over that the NCAA’s Penn State sanctions don’t set a precedent. And yet there they are — no investigation, not even a weak attempt at following its own procedures for addressing major violations and arriving at the single harshest penalty it’s ever doled out.
That, boys and girls, is a precedent. A scary one.
Another word that Emmert used over and over: “culture.” He was referring to the football culture at Penn State, the one that the Freeh report concluded led Paterno, Curley, Schultz and Spanier to cover up Sandusky’s crimes.
Think about college football culture. Big school. Big stadium. Athletics department handling millions of dollars a weekend, money it relies on to fund other sports, other athletes. A reputation that attracts students, student-athletes and donations.
A reputation that’s enhanced by winning.
Freeh concluded that the culture at Penn State led to the cover up. And the NCAA implied that the culture at Penn State is somehow different than at other member institutions.
Think. Is it? Did I just describe the culture in State College a couple paragraphs ago? Or was I thinking about the one in Tuscaloosa? Or Ann Arbor? Baton Rouge? Austin? South Bend?
Or the one in Columbus?
I’ll grant that a cover up was (and still is) easier at Penn State than it would be in Columbus, because of the records laws I’ve already discussed. But if you think the basic culture at name-your-favorite-college-football-school is somehow different than the one that just got hammered by Penn State, you’re kidding yourself.
Consider this. Penn State fans are being portrayed as naive and blind at the moment, because of their continued devotion to their football program and their late head coach. But when presented with the information that Jim Tressel knew of violations by his players — and knew that those violations would at least mean lengthy suspensions for his starting quarterback and several other players — and broke a simple-but-serious NCAA rule, most Ohio State fans thought — and still think — he was treated unfairly.
Anyone want to explain to me about the differences between the cultures of State College and Columbus now?
From the moment that we learned that Tressel knew of the violations committed by his players, Ohio State did everything it could to paint its head coach as the one guy responsible for the cover up. It did so to prevent a Lack of Institutional Control charge that would have certainly been levied if someone else — other coaches, the athletics director, etc. — knew what Tressel had done.
Ohio State was successful. If it wasn’t — and the tattoo scandal happened now — does the NCAA have grounds to do something similar? No investigation? No due process? Drop a bomb and go home?
I think it does.
Maybe I’m a little different from most of my fellow Buckeyes in that I haven’t forgiven Jim Tressel for his cover up and the damage it did to Ohio State.
But I am complicit here as well.
As I made clear several times last year, I am tired of writing about scandals. I am tired of thinking about the NCAA. It became so exhausting last year that I pretty much stopped posting here, because outside of the Wisconsin game, there wasn’t much to write about that didn’t feel tainted.
Since then, Ohio State has hired a new coach. OSU is no longer waiting for the NCAA’s final ruling. There are hardships the program will have to deal with, this year and for several years to come, and we’re going to be reminded of those at every turn this fall.
Here’s where I’m guilty. I want the same thing that my Penn State friends want. To get up early on a Saturday morning, pack up the truck and spend the day in a parking lot and the stadium.
To watch football.
To finally get back to normal.