The End of Penn State Football

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After the Freeh report, should the university dismantle its football program?

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation,Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) discuss the recently released Freeh report.


Gentlemen,

Nero fiddled. But at least he didn't change the channel. The same can't be said of Penn State. Yesterday morning, a handful of onlookers gathered in the university's student center to watch the live release of former FBI Director Louis Freeh's damning report on the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, a report that harshly condemned school officials and former football coach Joe Paterno. Yet just as a CNN anchor was about to discuss the document, a university employee reportedly switched the channel of the TVs at the Penn State student center to an unrelated public access program.

How fitting.

According to the Freeh report, Paterno and his administrative puppets knew. They knew Sandusky was molesting boys. Knew for more than a decade. And did nothing. Actually, they did worse than nothing: They actively covered things up. Changed the channel. Enabled the unthinkable, the better to protect Penn State's popular, beloved, cash-cow football program, a moral Potemkin village of cardboard sanctimony, golden calves and Grand Experiment "success with honor" poppycock. As Freeh put it, Paterno and Company's top concern was avoiding "bad publicity."

In other words, they were less worried about the sexual violation of minors than what the world would think of them—and by extension, their football team—if the awful truth was revealed.

This is why Penn State football should be eliminated.

How could grown, supposedly upstanding men—holding leadership positions within an in loco parentis institution, no less—value public esteem more than private horror? Easy. Public esteem is the lifeblood of the big-time college sports-industrial complex. The raison d'etre of the whole exercise. With it, dollars flow. Athletes become folk heroes. Coaches become demigods. Entire communities become cultish and insular.

Without public adoration, Penn State football is just a bunch of guys chasing a ball and hitting each other in the head. And nobody—nobody sane, anyway—places protecting a child rapist over that.

Some observers think the NCAA should punish the university's football program for a lack of institutional control, perhaps levying the seldom-used "death penalty." Right idea. Wrong executioner. I say leave NCAA sanctions—lost scholarships, television bans, blah blah blah—out of it, and just shut down the team altogether. Permanently. The lesson of the Freeh report isn't just that Paterno and others didn't do enough; it's that everyone else loved Penn State football too much. Loved it so much it became a totem, an identity, an entire culture. Not just a game. Not just a silly diversion. Something people were far too afraid to cross. Something people remain far too afraid to lose.

In his Thursday press conference, Freeh mentioned Penn State janitors who saw Sandusky molesting a boy in the shower. One, a Korean War veteran, called the scene "the worst thing I ever saw." Nevertheless, he and the other janitors decided not to report it. They didn't want to get fired. "If that's the culture on the bottom," Freeh said, "God help the culture on the top." Yes. A thousand times yes. And God help the channel-changing culture in the middle, too.

Jake, should Penn State end football?

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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