Late this past week an earthquake was felt in State College, and the resulting cascade of day-by-day events signal that a tsunami is following close behind. If you think that an earthquake is bad, wait until the tsunami hits. It’s much worse than the earthquake.
First the earthquake: Jerry Sandusky was a household name in the State College I grew up in, the 1970s through the 1980s, when I graduated from Penn State. Heir apparent to coach Joe Paterno, Sandusky was a household name, a golden name. As the high-performing caretaker of Penn State’s famous “Linebacker U” identity, Sandusky epitomized the toughness, braininess, and determination of one of college football’s all-time greatest programs, the Penn State Nittany Lions.
That golden program’s glow illuminated all that sat in its shadow, and Happy Valley has radiated quiet quality and confident happiness for decades. Sandusky was at the center of an empire built on trust, integrity, and clean living, qualities of which we stodgy, old-fashioned old Penn Staters are tremendously proud. It’s all at risk, now.
Now, according to charges brought against him, Sandusky appears to be heading toward the lowest reputation a man can have, a pedophile. Of course, he is innocent until proven guilty, but the crimes appear to be so numerous, so egregious, that if even just one is eventually proven, it alone would be too much to bear. The whole debacle threatens to drag down Penn State with it.
For the first time in Penn State’s storied football program, and by extension the university’s own administrative reputation, an event so dramatic has occurred that it potentially strikes at the core of the universal happiness. After the earthquake, a stain is seen slowly spreading on the kingdom that Joe built. Guilt by association with the charges against Sandusky is not far behind.
And here’s that tsunami, bearing down on all of Penn State: According to additional charges announced a day later against PSU heavies Tim Curley (Athletic Director) and Gary Shultz (Vice President for Finance and the campus police), a house of cards artificially held Sandusky in place, professionally and socially. Despite rumors and actual eyewitness reports of Sandusky’s crimes being conveyed to Curley and Shultz, neither of them relayed the accusations to the police. Under their protective gaze, Sandusky continued to use his Second Mile charity for at-risk children to put yet more children at risk.
Shultz’s attorney claims that his client is under no obligation to report child abuse allegedly committed by a former employee. Yeah sure, that’ll fly, when Sandusky was allowed to use the same university facilities where some of the alleged assaults occurred because of his former Golden Boy status and tight small town, big program, charitable relationships with Tim Curley and Gary Shultz. It doesn’t matter whether the cops, district attorney, or a jury of their peers eventually agree with that line of thinking.
What matters most is public perception, and the general perception is that these two senior PSU executives demonstrated fatally poor judgment. That public perception is going to quickly become public pressure, and the two men will go into retirement some time in the coming weeks. We know it’s coming.
Adding insult to injury is PSU president Graham Spanier’s lame defense of Curley and Shultz. In what has to be the most public display of Good Old Boy Circle The Wagons defense we’ve seen since the tobacco company executives took their congressional oaths years ago, Spanier actually testified to the good judgment of both men and promised they would be exonerated.
Popularly known as ‘doubling down’, Spanier’s bigger bet on the two men is going to be a loser. Mr. Spanier, you can’t really be president of one of America’s premier academic institutions and defend the indefensible. Spanier is demonstrating the clueless arrogance that goes with all big fishes living in small ponds, and he, too, is about to feel the wrath of public pressure. If Spanier lasts another month as Penn State’s president, it’ll be a miracle.
And if you love Penn State as I do, which is fanatically, then the final outcome of this sordid affair is likely to be bittersweet.
With the Athletic Director spot about to be empty any day now, and with President spot likely to be empty any week now, our aged hero, head coach Joe Paterno, will find himself all alone at the top of a heap over which he has little control. Change will be in the air in State College in the coming weeks, and it is unlikely that Paterno will survive it. Curley and Spanier both tried to bump Paterno out years ago, and both lost. They are soon to be gone, and new people with no history or loyalty to Joe will fill their seats. The new folks will make it a fast and final decision. Penn State will have a new coach within a year of now.
Like Penn State, the institution known as Coach Joe Paterno has my love, appreciation, admiration, and respect, for all of the obvious and same reasons he inspires that devotion among millions of others. I grew up with his wholesome kids and played in his all-American home, watched him recruit new players and listened to him lecture the young men on the straight-and-narrow Penn State way. He is a moral giant in a field crawling with opportunism and outright cheating. His example and principles are needed now more than ever. But if there is one more indication that Coach Paterno has lost the ability to hold on, it’s that he didn’t blow the whistle on Sandusky with more force.
Right now, Penn State is reeling from the earthquake. But no one can withstand a tsunami. What will be left at University Park after the coming tidal wave passes through will be interesting. Hopefully, what is left will be a return to the simple, humble, noble traditions that made us Nittany Lions great to begin with.
Photo by Mark Poblete
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