A Penn State problem?: Not by a long shot

A trail of university administrators may be following Jerry Sandusky to prison, and Joe Paterno’s legacy is drowning in a scum-covered pond.

The Joe Paterno statue outside of Beaver Stadium.

The rest of us sit in our Ivory Towers and pretend Sandusky’s systematic rape and abuse of young boys was an isolated incident, something that will never happen again, a terrible tragedy confined to the halls of the Lasch Building.

Some of my favorite journalists have weighed in with categorical judgments of administrators and coaches. Sally Jenkins explained the weight and specificity of Paterno’s lie. Rick Reilly implicated himself in helping to launch Paterno from coach to deity.

It’s all good reading, but – like the rest of the overall reaction to this tragedy — the focus is entirely too narrow.

Where are the stories about what other universities are doing to assess their own power structures?

Where are the quotations from boards of trustees, presidents, and even coaches from universities aside from Penn State that suggest fundamental changes of organizational infrastructure?

Where is the statement from the NCAA, the alleged governing board, announcing an investigation into the organizational cultures of its members that led to this whole mess?

The problem at Penn State was not simply that a manipulative pedophile was in its midst. As the Freeh Report indicated in no blurry terms, the problem that allowed Sandusky to rape boy after boy was “a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community” (p. 14).

This culture is not exclusive to Happy Valley.

As a matter of fact, this culture runs unchecked and rampant throughout this country. No one is innocent. Not Sandusky. Nor Paterno. Not Spanier. Not NCAA president Mark Emmert. Not ESPN. Not any hometown beat writer. Not any booster at any major college football program. Not any season ticket holder.

And, not any fan.

We are eyeball deep in an atmosphere where we clamor to our laptops to hang on the “soft commits” of high school juniors.

While the details of the worst attempt at a coverup in college sports history are revealed, it is business as usual in the sports media as though the Big Ten/Pac-12 alliance dissolving and recruits pondering decisions are the most important topics out there.

It’s past time for serious reform, but does NCAA president Mark Emmert have too much on the financial line to do anything on a sweeping scale?

We do not blink when, at noon on the day the New York Times publishes a scathing report on Paterno’s retirement settlement, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has nary a word on the topic. (By 1 p.m., it did.)

We justify that the flashiest locker rooms and the most posh offices should belong to the football team because, hey, history students and professors don’t bring 75,000 people to campus on Saturdays.

We swallow the NCAA’s shameless commercials on doing our “homework” and numb our gag reflex when coaches have the wherewithal to compare their relationships to their athletes as to those with their sons.

In 2003, I thought we had seen the most vile and tragic of college sports scandals when Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy was murdered by his teammate and coach Dave Bliss’s greatest concern was hiding the money he had been paying players. I thought, this will change everything.

Less than a decade later, nothing has changed. Instead, we are punched in the nose by a scandal even more vile and more tragic.

But this was not a sucker punch.

In the years since the Baylor scandal, college football has been marred by academic impropriety at UNC and revelations of improper payments and perks at USC, Ohio State and Miami, to name a few.

But it has also been a decade of rampant financial growth for BCS programs and football conferences. In 2011, the Pac-12 inked TV deals worth $2.7 billion. The Longhorn Network secured 300 million of ESPN’s dollars for the University of Texas alone.

It is no coincidence that as the dollar amount rises, the culture becomes more and more hegemonic, and the scandals read more and more tragically.

This is not just a Penn State problem. This is a national problem.

And it is one we are all refusing to see.


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