After the Freeh report, should the university dismantle its football program?
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.
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.
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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?
No. Despite the morally bankrupt conduct of the university's most powerful officials for nearly 13 years—conduct that caused me to belt out some very angry writing for this site yesterday—Penn State should not shutter its football program, nor should they be forced to. Doing so would only punish a huge swath of people that had nothing to do with letting Sandusky be a predator for so many years.
The men directly responsible for Sandusky's reign of terror—JoePa, former president Graham Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz, and former AD Tim Curley—are all going down. Paterno's dead, Curley and Schultz are facing criminal charges for their actions, and charges against Spanier are likely to follow. Shutting down Penn State football will not hurt these men in any way—jail and the inevitable passage of time should take care of that.
But what about the larger-than-life Penn State football culture that allowed this to happen? Well, we could argue all day about the implicit culpability of Nittany Lion diehards who have defended Paterno ad nauseum and continued to buy football program merchandise even as the scandal was publicized. But it is unfair to say that even the most diehard booster would have done what Paterno & Co. did—we just don't know, because we can't know. And it's certainly unfair to say that current Penn State players, equipment managers, or recruits—young people who depend on the program in innumerable ways—are at all to blame. But they are the ones a PSU football death penalty would hurt, not Paterno in the cold, cold ground of his grave or Sandusky in prison.
The "big-time college sports-industrial complex" that you mentioned must indeed be changed, Patrick. But scapegoating a program that's already removed its rotten center is not going to fix anything. All it will do is punish young people who had as much to do with the rotten Sandusky business as you or I.
Am I wrong, Hampton?
Penn State football must die.
It hurts to write those words. One of my best friends is a passionate PSU alum. The Sandusky scandal crushed him, as it crushed so many who love the school. My friend is one of those innocents, along with trainers, students, and ticket-takers who will be hurt if Penn State football is shut down.
I don't care. Shut it down. The statue of Paterno should be torn to scrap and melted. Every football field on campus ripped up and the earth salted. The kids who are there now can finish school or transfer. As for the students who'll miss those great college football afternoons, tough.
Otherwise, it'll happen again.
Maybe not at that school. And maybe next time it won't be child molesters. Maybe at the next school it will be a coach selling HGH, or addicted to cocaine, or running a prostitution ring out of his office. Whatever. It'll be something bad, because we're sending the wrong message. Basically, we're sending no message at all. Society doesn't punish wrongdoing merely to exact justice. Punishment, whether jail time, fines or dismantling a poisonous institution is meant to be a deterrence against future sins.
You know what caused SMU football get their "death penalty"—which, by the way, meant a whole two years without football? SMU gave cash to players, between $50 and $300 per month. Would anyone really claim that giving a 19-year-old linebacker a few bucks for shoes and pizza is worse than what Paterno enabled? Or maybe the argument is that this scandal isn't a "football problem," so the football program shouldn't be punished. Please. Do you think a coach of any other sport, like, say swimming or track, could have gotten away with what Sandusky did for so long? How about an English teacher?
No, this isn't about the game of football. But it's all about the business that football has become. Sure, Sandusky is heading for jail. Paterno is dead, but the sick culture of denial he built at Penn State lives on; as evidenced by the channel-changing on campus Patrick cited.
Make no mistake, gentlemen. Sandusky's buddies at Penn State weren't covering up his sickness out of anything so noble as loyalty. They certainly weren't protecting the university's image. Paterno, Spanier, Curley, and Schultz were protecting themselves. This was sheer vanity and greed, with big dollop of denial to make it go down smooth. These men were protecting their own power. It's our right as a society to destroy the source of that power. We owe to the past, and we'd better do it for the future.