At Penn State, Farewell to Football?

The university must decide how to begin rebuilding trust.


Just moments before last Friday's televised release of an independent report on the child sex abuse scandal that has shaken Penn State, the screens at the campus's student center suddenly switched to a public access station.

Students and alumni had gathered for the broadcast of former FBI Director Louis Freeh's findings in his investigation into the Jerry Sandusky case. The damning details include significant lapses in legal and ethical obligation by the university's president and legendary football coach Joe Paterno, among others.

While much of the country was learning about the Freeh Report, this Penn State audience instead watched an interview from Allentown about the state budget, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It would be easy to cast the incident in the student center as a metaphor for a university refusing to deal with a crisis and hoping in vain that the bad news will simply go away. However, Penn State officials chose Freeh to lead the investigation in order to bolster confidence that no incriminating details would be suppressed. The report appears to have satisfied that burden. Now the university must decide what corrective action should be taken, and how to begin rebuilding confidence and trust.

Some sports journalists -- including USA Today's Christine Brennan and the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy -- argue that Penn State football must be shut down if the university is going to recover. Others have countered that such extreme measures would only hurt the students who are currently involved in the program. (That's not to say it can't be done. Florida A&M University has pulled its celebrated marching band off the field indefinitely, following the hazing death of a drum major.)

Over the weekend, ESPN reported that Penn State's board of trustees had voted to leave Paterno's statue outside the football stadium for now, motivated in part by a desire not to offend the alumni and students who are still standing by the late coach. And the university is certainly not lacking for support. Penn State is reporting the second-most successful fundraising year in its history, with donations topping $208 million.

"We're very grateful--humbled really--to have this kind of response from Penn Staters, who I think have rallied to the cause ... by the side of the institution through a very difficult time," Rod Kirsch, the university's senior vice president for development and alumni relations, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

What happened at Penn State involved a confluence of horrendous circumstances and poor decisions that are unlikely to be repeated. Still, the wider higher education community can learn from this ordeal. To be sure, those lessons will likely be hardest for those who were closest to the heart of the scandal. If Penn State is to move past this chapter, it's going to have to confront its new reality. And that reality can't be avoided by changing the channel.

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.