Did misplaced priorities foster environment for Sandusky scandal?

Posted by Jeff Rice on November 21, 2011 

There has been a lot written during the past several days about the Penn State football program and its place in the scandal centered around Jerry Sandusky. Some believe that the program and the university chose to cover up the alleged sex crimes of the former football assistant coach to save the face of the program, that a culture that values the almighty dollar and a football program with the ability to bring in those dollars above all else lost sight of its moral goals and its educational priorities. Some have gone so far as to say Penn State should cancel its football program.

I understand this logic to a point but it's very difficult to get behind, if only because it's not nearly specific enough. The idea behind it is that if football (or any sort of athletic endeavor) is not the major priority of the university, it won't cloud the judgments of people in position to make authoritative and impacting decisions, the kind that weren't made, or so it has seemed, in the Sandusky case.

Look, as someone who has lived in this community for more than a decade and been attending Penn State football games since the 1980s, I can say that the pull and power of Penn State football is formidable. People of all ages, genders, races, classes and professions take it very seriously, and it has become a brand and one of the biggest businesses in the state. As a sports writer who has covered major college football for more than a decade, I can say that this country doesn't always have its priorities in order when it comes to the sporting realm, that football is an important teacher and, for better or worse, a huge part of our culture but that its level of importance tends to be overestimated from time to time.

All that said, football was not to blame for the scandal that has fallen on this university. Yes, it was a former football coach who committed the alleged crimes. It was a football graduate assistant coach who allegedly saw one of those crimes being committed and, well, that's where it gets hazy. What that graduate assistant reported to his superiors and what those superiors did about it is as much at the root of the scandal as the alleged crimes themselves.

But couldn't it just as easily have been a former English professor who committed the crimes and been discovered by a teaching assistant who reported the incidents to his superiors who handled the matter in questionable and unclear fashion? This is not to say that, as a whole, the university did not fail Sandusky's alleged victims and that the cover-up in question, if true, is not reprehensible. It is only saying that it is not a football issue. It is a morality issue. It is a power issue. It is a chain-of-command issue. Shutting down the football program would not solve the true problem.

Another thing I've heard and seen a lot the past several days is this mantra: "Why punish the players on the current team, who had nothing to do with the alleged crimes or the alleged cover-up?" Or, "Why punish the rest of Penn State's varsity teams, the vast majority of which rely on the revenue the football program generates to survive?"

Think about the message shutting down the football program would send. Would pulling the financial plug motivate people to do the right thing? Would a university without football make the victims of the alleged crimes feel better, knowing that Penn State finally "had its priorities in order"?

Big-time college athletics, in its current form, has more than its share of troubles. There are scandals each year, all over the country, involving academic issues, bribery, drugs, impropriety ... you name it. It means the system needs constant monitoring, some occasional tweaking, swift enforcement of regulations and, more than anything else, people in positions of authority who make the right calls to both prevent and handle the fallout of those problems. It doesn't mean the system needs to be scrapped altogether.

The monitoring is now fully upon Penn State. The tweaking has already begun and should continue. The goal is to emerge with people in positions of authority, from the Lasch Building to Old Main to the governor's office, who will prevent a mess like this from ever taking place again.

They should not have to close up Beaver Stadium to achieve that goal. And doing so would not, on its own, come close to attaining that goal.

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