Commentary: On The Penn State Situation
by Jonathan Hodges

I am writing this due to the fact that the situation at Penn State University has spiraled beyond the criminal acts charged against a former PSU football coach and will now clearly affect head coach Joe Paterno, PSU president Graham Spanier, the PSU football program, the school, the Big Ten, and college football as a whole. Given that, and some strong opinions on the situation, I felt a need to write about it even though the events are seemingly outside of the normal scope of this Northwestern football centric site. Also note that with the continuous and immediate evolution of this story, some of the information here will likely be out of date by the time it is published, although the main sentiments should retain their applicability.

Before I jump into anything else, everyone's thoughts and prayers should certainly go to the victims of these heinous crimes and their families; there are real victims involved here, unlike anything involving NCAA violations. Former PSU assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's accused actions are reprehensible and he will surely be dealt with via the justice system now that the facts have come to light and the grand jury has brought indictments against him. The focus of this article will not be on him nor will it be on the criminal law angle as the judicial system will take care of that. Also, I do hope that something positive can someday come out of this: an act of child abuse prevented or, at least, reported that otherwise would not have been. Maybe this can bring some additional awareness to these horrible crimes which will hopefully lead to someone heading off such a despicable act or a victim seeking help that they otherwise may not have done.

The Situation

Now, on to the resulting situation, which has obviously turned into a quagmire with so many thoughts and emotions swirling from all angles. I certainly do not wish this situation on any institution of higher learning, particularly one that shares a conference with Northwestern and has otherwise run a football program "the right way" by graduating players and following NCAA regulations. Joe Paterno is still one of the best and most iconic college football coaches of all-time and embodies Penn State football (which, unfortunately, led to some of the issues at play here); although his contributions to this situation are disheartening, it won't take away the many lives that he's changed and the positive contributions that he's made over the years. Unfortunately, those aforementioned contributions will certainly tarnish his legacy, and should (and likely will) abruptly end his career.

The reason that this case has stirred such an uproar is because of the cover-up. In the grand jury report, there were reports of abuse by Sandusky as early as 1998 (he coached at PSU until 1999), including a reported admission to a victim's mother. The next year, Sandusky was pushed into retirement as it was made clear that he would not be next in line to replace Paterno, and although nothing came to light about his crimes at that point, one must now wonder if someone in the administration knew and decided to get him out of the spotlight while avoiding any controversy or negative press at the time. This suspicion is justified given the later cover-up, in 2002, when then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary (a former PSU player and now a full time PSU assistant coach) witnessed a crime in the locker room on campus, immediately went to his father (John McQueary), then both reporting the incident to Joe Paterno. Paterno then sent it up the ladder to his immediate boss (AD Tim Curley) and another administration official (VP Gary Schultz, whose purview included the University Police).

This is where the scandal certainly sets in: Curley and Schultz promptly covered up the situation by stopping Sandusky from bringing minors onto the main campus any more (which university president Graham Spanier signed off on), but failed to report the incident to the police, revoke Sandusky's priveledges (which included an office in the football complex and access to campus), or taking any other action to prevent Sandusky from victimizing more children (note that Sandusky was the head of a charity, the Second Mile, which he is accused of using to funnel victims to himself). There were eight victims listed in the indictment, and, according to reports, at least one more that has already come forward (with some reports of up to 20 victims total). It is clear that by failing to stop this man, PSU officials were responsible for allowing these reprehensible crimes to continue. Note that both Curley and Schultz were indicted on perjury charges (related to their testimony to the grand jury) as well as others related to their inaction; both have been removed from their positions at the university.

Current Events and Opinions

After the charges came out, PSU president Spanier promptly released a statement giving full support to the two employees (Curley and Schultz) and has since gone quiet and essentially been in hiding. He also cancelled Paterno's weekly press appearances (Tuesday press conference and media teleconference) and has left the university essentially leader-less. He certainly has some level of culpability, and the university board of trustees has reportedly already begun the process of taking action; so far, their only public statement has been to announce the formation of an investigation committee. The fact is that these actions are too little and way too late in light of the crimes and resulting cover-up.

What should be done is: putting Spanier, Paterno, and McQueary on immediate administrative leave. This should have been done when the story first broke. The university should have had a spokesperson unrelated to the situation (a trustee) speak to the situation directly early on. Instead, the media storm has descended upon State College, and it will not let up until these three have been stripped of their duties. It's clear that a cover up occurred and that these three individuals were involved. Yes, they may be in the clear from a legal standpoint (as much was said about Paterno and McQueary by the district attorney), but they are certainly not from an ethical or public opinion standpoint. They cannot effectively do their jobs with this hanging over their heads, and the fact that they and other officials are obtuse enough to allow this to continue shows where the priorities are at Penn State.

The fact is that Paterno and PSU football have become too large and powerful (see the early 2000s where Paterno essentially brushed off calls for him to step down, including from trustees and those in the administration). Many people are posing hypothetical questions that aren't exactly fair, but are still pertinent, including: what would happen if this was any other shorter-tenured coach? what if this was another sport? Most often, the answer is that the coach and others involved would be immediately removed. Instead, the thoughts of Paterno, his legacy, and the program have stirred up very mixed emotions, particularly in those directly connected to the Penn State program. This is all the more reason that immediate action should be taken, and that action should be removing Paterno from power.

As mentioned earlier, Spanier is also culpable and should be immediately removed as well, and he is also responsible for the completely inadequate response (or complete lack of response) after the story broke last Saturday. The buck should have stopped with him and his lack of action is very telling. He should never be an education administrator again.

McQueary seems to have drawn the short straw here. Many are rightly upset about him not taking any immediate action to stop the crime that he witnessed. I have no idea what I would have done, so I will refrain from judging him. He did talk to his father and notified Paterno immediately, which was something, and I give him credit for that (and the legal system did as well, as he was also absent from the indictment). He'll likely never be able to coach again or do anything in the spotlight of college football, which is something that seemingly meant a lot to him. But in order for this to play out, he should also step aside.

In the end, I believe that Paterno should never coach a game again. Letting him coach the remainder of the season would show that the priority is not on the victims and the situation, but instead would show that football and one man's desires are more important than the crime that was committed and then covered up. Do I hold Paterno personally responsible for this? No. But he must acknowledge that this is bigger than him, bigger than football, and that the best thing that can happen is stepping aside now, letting his assistants coach out this season (since they essentially already do the heavy lifting), and formally retire at the end of the season (his contract technically expires at the end of this year, and reports have already surfaced that he will retire and/or the board of trustees is working on plans to move on).

Final Thoughts

This is certainly a horrible situation and one that will tarnish Paterno's otherwise great legacy and will almost definitely end his long and otherwise prestigious career. It will put a large dent in the PSU football program and the university as a whole. Most importantly, there are real victims who were hurt and who continued to be hurt after earlier incidents were covered up. None of this is acceptable. Those legally culpable will be tried through the justice system (Sandusky - the actual perpetrator, as well as Curley and Schultz). Those morally culpable should also pay by losing their jobs (most importantly, Paterno and Spanier).

This is a very tough situation to think about and has left college football fans, PSU fans in particular, unsure about what to think or how to feel. There will be a long aftermath to this. But decisive action must be taken immediately. Again, one hopes that this will set an example while also bringing awareness to a continuing plague that may help prevent something in the future or allow a victim to get help.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.