In the name of simple decency, Penn State needs to give itself the death penalty. Cancel the 2012 football season. It won’t begin to atone for the atrocities that the late Joe Paterno refused to see through his thick glasses, but it will be a symbolic gesture that shows the university understands how disgusting and shameful the tragedy is.
Business as usual should not be an option. Put padlocks on the stadium gates. Take the coaches off the recruiting trail. Forfeit the box-office receipts and the TV time. And, please, take a jackhammer to the statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium. We now know, thanks to a university-funded report by ex-FBI director Louis Freeh that the sainted “Joe Pa” was guilty of condoning child abuse.
As long ago as the late 1990s, Paterno and others learned that football assistant Jerry Sandusky was preying on the underprivileged boys who came through his foundation. But instead of immediately doing the right thing and turning over the matter to the police, Penn State began a cover-up that reached all the way to the university president’s office.
Maybe, in this case, the cover-up was not worse than the crimes because the crimes were as heinous as it gets. But it was every bit as bad. And it boggles the mind to think that after Sandusky was forced to retire prematurely, he was allowed to keep an office in the Penn State athletic complex and have full run of the facilities.
This is the Mother of All Sports Scandals. Forget all those times when an Oklahoma or an Auburn or a Miami were caught violating NCAA rules. Never mind the bills of particulars against the likes of Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods, Barry Switzer and others. Those guys were jaywalkers compared with what happened at Penn State.
If Penn State doesn’t voluntarily suspend its program, the Big Ten should don the honors. And if the Big Ten drags its cleats, then the NCAA presidents should show some backbone, for a change, and shut down the Nittany Lions.
Until now, the two most notorious death-penalty cases involved Kentucky basketball, which was forced to sit out the 1952-’53 season because of the point-shaving scandal and allegations of rules violations, and SMU football, which got shut down in the 1980s because of widespread rules violations.
Not to diminish the seriousness of either case, but both pale in comparison with what happened at Penn State. It always is shameful when adults betray the confidence of young people who are entrusted to their care. It becomes unforgiveable when the adults commit and/or condone assaults on not only their bodies, but their spirit, their dignity, their humanity.
Opponents of shutting down the Penn State program for a year argue that it would unfairly punish the current coaches and players, none of whom had anything to do with the Sandusky scandal. But I say, so what? The point must be made that some things are more important in life than mere sports.
Back in 1980, when President Carter decided that the U.S. would boycott the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he knew that the athletes would be disappointed because all their preparation and hard work would go for naught. Yet he also hoped they would put patriotism ahead of personal gain. And almost all of them did, supporting the President’s decision because something more important than Olympic stardom was in play.
It’s the same at Penn State. With the blessing of the NCAA, players would be given a choice. Those who decided to stay and sit out a year would not lose a season of eligibility. It would be like a redshirt year. But those who wanted to transfer would be allowed to play immediately without penalty.
We have become so addicted to sports that we lose sight of the fact that universities do not exist mainly to sponsor teams. In fact, I would make the argument that all the one-and-done college players who were picked in the first round of the NBA draft aren’t as likely to make significant contributions to society as their classmates who stayed in school.
Football and basketball players are entertainers. Our society can get along without entertainers. But we can’t get along without doctors, lawyers, journalists, accountants, educators, ministers, and business leaders.
I’m glad the one-and-done basketball players got their multi-million-dollar contracts. I hope they invest their money wisely and secure their futures. I look forward to being entertained by them. But don’t tell me they are more important to society than students seriously preparing for careers in the fields that make a democratic society function.
So losing Penn State football for a year will be important only to the knuckleheads who probably are still trying to find ways to defend Paterno. Let me give them a clue: You can’t defend the indefensible.
The last writer to interview Paterno before his death was Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post. Here’s how she began a recent column:
“Joe Paterno was a liar, there’s no doubt about that now. He was also a cover-up artist. If the Freeh report is correct in its summary of the Penn State child-molestation scandal, the public Paterno of the last few years was a work of fiction. In his place is a hubristic, indictable hypocrite.”
For Roman Catholics, Paterno’s fall from grace is particularly painful, coming while the church still is reeling from the allegations that various priests in the U.S. and other countries have been committing child abuse for years. Knowing what we now know about Paterno, it’s difficult to imagine how he could have the audacity to deplore the priest scandal publicly while condoning the same criminal behavior in his football program.
Shut it down, Penn State. Do the right thing for a change. Don’t wait for the Big Ten or the NCAA to do it for you. Show us that you have a sense of shame, of decency, of accountability. That should be the first step on the long and difficult road to recovery.
Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky’s spectacular annual event.
This column first appeared at LouisvilleCatholicsports.com.