Former FBI Director Louis Freeh concluded one of the most horrifying investigations in the history of collegiate sports this week. In the wake of years of sexual abuse of young men by coach Jerry Sandusky of Penn State, often in the shower room and facilities of the football program, Freeh documented a concerted cover-up effort to prevent the truth from coming out and allowing the abuse to continue.
Edmund Burke once wrote that "In order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing." Freeh's damning report referred to a pervasive and damaging culture at Penn State where the nexus of power was concentrated in four men: University President Graham Spanier, head football coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schulz whose repetitive failure to act when presented with troubling allegations against Jerry Sandusky was motivated by one goal: "to avoid the consequences of bad publicity."
What is the rationale for having collegiate sports programs? How did "the image of Penn State sports" become a higher value than protecting innocent victims? Sports can provide an invaluable experience for the inculcation of positive life values. Athletes can learn the value of self-discipline, eschewing present gratification in order to achieve a long-term goal, teamwork, elevation of performance under adverse circumstances. The teaching and mentoring of talented coaches can set the foundation for an athlete's moral center and success in life. Joe Paterno spent years preaching these values. He provided critical life lessons for generations of Penn State footballers. This was the program where player's names were not emblazoned on the back of uniforms, where the value of education was stressed, where classy behavior was the norm. But the football program and Joe were deified and granted unchecked power and were able to create a culture that had no behavioral checks and balances. Jerry Sandusky was a gifted and beloved Defensive Coordinator still in the prime of his career when he suddenly resigned. What did the four men in power know about him and not reveal? Reports of his misbehavior surfaced since 1998, but he was allowed to return to campus, keep an office, and enter the facilities at Penn State, which he essentially would use as a "raping" ground. Freeh asserts that these four men knew and covered it up.
The interests of an athletic program cannot be exalted beyond the educational aims of a University. No matter how essential that program is for alumni contributions or student morale -- the primary charge of a University is to educate young people. The behavior of the students who created mayhem to protest the firing of Paterno sent a chilling reminder of what values were being taught. Deification and idol worship seemed much more important than any concern for vulnerable children. Teaching math and literature is fine, but it needs to be accompanied by moral values and priorities. The state legislature, Board of Trustees, campus administration all allowed the football program to be unscrutinized and ungoverned. Silence replaced accountability.
So how do we judge the life and legacy of Joe Paterno? Human behavior is complex and often conflicting. My father used to tell me "watch what I do as well as what I say." The real value that Paterno brought to athlete's lives for years still endures. Does one horrific set of actions redefine legacy? Many of the most venerated of Americans have some actions or behaviors in their background that were less than admirable. I have seen first hand the power that the athletic world has in role modelling in my practice for the last 40 years. We encourage athletes to trigger positive imitative behavior. Because of the power of media in creating larger than life figures in the world of sports, everyone accepts being held to a higher standard of behavior. Rooting out predators who steal the childhood of their victims and often scar them for life would have sent a powerful message. Each of us can judge how we value people who willingly protected those predators.
Ironically, the NCAA, which levies penalties to athletic departments for such offenses as allowing students to use the telephones in the office to call home, has taken no position. As long as they can continue levying uneven and idiosyncratic uses of their investigatory and discipline power, they sail merrily along in their alternative universe. It took Judge Freeh to interview hundreds of witnesses and assemble an accurate narrative of this scandal. When the NCAA is presented with a frightening example of an athletic program which is out of control, what will they do?
We exalt athletics at the college level for the benefits it provides, there needs to be equal focus on the character lessons it is teaching.