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Scandal culture snagged Paterno

Posted: November 17, 2011 11:15 a.m.
Updated: November 18, 2011 5:00 a.m.

In a bracing understatement, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, 84, uttered a tragic epitaph to his abruptly ended legendary career, "With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." He is not alone.

The legendary coach could have done more to protect children when he heard back in 2002 that now-former defense coach Jerry Sandusky had been seen in the act of sodomizing a ten-year-old boy in the team's locker room showers, according to a state grand jury report. For starters, he could have called police. Instead he reported it to his superiors. By the time it reached President Graham Spanier's desk, the president testified, it was described to him as mere "horsing around."

Nothing further was done, according to the report, despite earlier allegations of misconduct as far back as a 1998 episode in which Sandusky admitted to university police and to the mother of an 11-year-old boy that it was wrong to shower with the boy and promised not to do it again.

Yes, the coach could have done more. He could have called police. He could have followed up on his initial complaint. Instead, he apparently hid behind a bureaucratic process that did more to bury the matter than stop a suspected predator.

And the original whistleblower, assistant football coach Mike McQueary, could have done more, too. Like Paterno, he is being criticized for failing to stop Sandusky or call police after witnessing the shower incident as a 28-year-old graduate student. Instead, he called his father. A day went by before he told Paterno, according to the report, who delayed another day before telling his superiors.

Sandusky now has numerous counts of child sex charges in an investigation that is extending beyond the state. Paterno and Spanier were fired by the university's trustees. The fact that McQueary was not fired, too, brought a new controversy, apparently including the threats against him that caused the university to announce he would not be at the sidelines of the school's final home game of the year.

Hanging like a cloud over this scandal is the question of how and why so many people failed to do more when they had the opportunity. "I don't think I've ever been associated with a case with this type of eyewitness identification of sex acts taking place where the police weren't called," state police Commissioner Frank Noonan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Considering the privileged, closed-society nature of major college sports, many have drawn comparisons with the child-abuse scandals among Catholic priests. The Penn State heartbreak happens to coincide with other scandals of a more conventional pay-for-play variety that recently have afflicted college football. It is not hard to suspect the same sort of culture of corruption and entitlement played a role in "Happy Valley," as sportscasters like to call Penn State, and its too-casual attitude toward Sandusky.

At least 10 major football programs have faced investigations or punishment in recent months. They include widely publicized allegations that University of Miami football players received gifts, cash and even prostitutes.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch investigated pay-for-play in a recent article in The Atlantic magazine called "The Shame of College Sports," now available as an e-book, and came away convinced we need a culture shift, including paying college athletes what they're worth. I agree, although educators and other traditionalists hate that idea.

Yet, as Branch writes, the real scandal is not that some college athletes are getting paid under the table but that more of them are not being properly compensated in plain sight. After decades of such financial hypocrisy, we should not be shocked to see a casual attitude toward corruption and cover-ups extend even to sins as horrendous as child molestation.

And if this corrupt culture is an addiction, it has multitudes of codependents. When Penn State students rioted over the loss of their beloved "JoePa," I doubt that many of them took to the streets over the loss of their formerly distinguished college president.

Paterno's "hindsight" should give us some foresight. We won't have to confess to not having done enough to break up this culture of corruption and entitlement if we stop taking it for granted now.

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