One remedy: Penn State without football
These are desperate times for the university. They might require desperate measures.
They fired the president of the university. They fired Joe Paterno, their legendary coach. They allowed the athletic director and a university vice president to at least temporarily leave their jobs.
It's a start.
But the trustees who govern Penn State have more work to do. Much more work.
If the university intends to cleanse itself of the toxic culture described in agonizing detail in the report of the Pennsylvania grand jury that issued the indictments in the allegations of a sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, the trustees must continue to scour the athletic department and remove all who placed Penn State football ahead of the safety and welfare of needy and vulnerable young boys.
It is conceivable that the process could lead the trustees to consider a total shutdown of the football program as the best way to excise all that is wrong.
It was, after all, a culture that, under Paterno's unquestioned leadership, apparently enabled Sandusky to perpetrate his alleged atrocities on an unknown number of boys in these ways, according to the grand jury report:
• Allowed him systematic access to these children.
• Ignored obvious signs of perversity.
• Provided locations (weight room, sauna) and events (bowl games, road trips) for Sandusky that were irresistible to troubled boys in State College, the ultimate college town.
• Covered up for Sandusky whenever the possibility of detection arose.
• Ignored legal and moral obligations to take action that would embarrass the supposedly impeccable football program.
Despite the astonishing revelations of the past several days, it will not be easy for the trustees to do what they must do. They will face Paterno's legions of fans and his significant influence metastasized through the university, based both on his decades of success and his generosity to the university community. It is difficult to estimate the extent of the role Paterno's image and presence will have on the effort to change the athletic department culture.
Another reason it won't be easy for the trustees is that instead of recognizing their failures, some of the principals involved in the scandal are parsing and rationalizing what happened. The athletic director and the university administrator are claiming that a graduate assistant who, according to the grand jury, saw Sandusky raping a child in an athletic department shower in 2002, did not mention anal sex to them in his reports. It might have been simple horseplay, they suggest.
The unavoidable facts, however, are that a grown man was in the shower with a boy, and it was not the first time. And neither Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley nor university senior vice-president Gary Schultz reported it to law enforcement authorities.
As the trustees continue their work, they must purge the culture of the denial and the delusion that apparently allowed Sandusky to operate with impunity for years. They must establish an atmosphere of responsibility and accountability in a culture that encourages coaches, staff and students to do what is right instead of the bare minimum required by the law. One way to help make that happen is to institute seminars and training sessions that define the basic duties of citizenship and establish a new standard of behavior for all members of the university community. Instead of assuming that people will do the right things, the university's management must define what the right things are and create an atmosphere in which that proper behavior is encouraged.
And the trustees must do this work publicly and definitively. Their investigation must be detailed and transparent if they hope to eliminate the old and re-establish an atmosphere of integrity in the football program.
As the trustees attempt to reset the priorities of the university and its football program, here are some things they must do:
• Investigate the Second Mile Foundation. Founded by Sandusky in 1977, it allegedly provided him with a continuing supply of young boys. The foundation is not formally a part of the university, but it uses the school's facilities for its camps and is intertwined with the football program in numerous ways. Can the foundation be salvaged? Should it be shut down?
Penn State and Joe Paterno likely will soon be facing civil lawsuits from the victims of Jerry Sandusky's alleged perversity. Lester Munson »
• Re-examine the investigation of another shower incident, this one in 1998. Why was no action taken after a probe by the police and a child welfare agency? What was the role, if any, of this incident in the "retirement" of Sandusky from the football staff in 1999?
• Examine the role of attorney Wendell Courtney, identified in the grand jury report, who was the university lawyer during the 1998 investigation and then moved to the Second Mile charity as its lawyer, where he served during Sandusky's alleged predations.
• Analyze the accounts of the victims described in the grand jury report (and of any additional alleged victims who come forward) to determine what staff members knew about Sandusky and these boys, and what the staff members did nor did not do about it. Determine if there is reason for any of these staff members to continue their employment with the university.
• Consider the cancellation of the football program for a period of at least two years. It might not be possible to establish a new culture without the total elimination of the old one. A two-year hiatus might be the only way to eliminate a systemic problem. How important is football to an institution of higher learning that serves 95,000 students and is supposed to be dedicated to the pursuit of excellence? When Tulane University was caught in a basketball point-shaving scandal in the mid-1980s, the university leadership eliminated the sport for several years to allow a complete renewal of values. When the U.S. Congress discovered a series of abuses in 2008 in its page program, which was designed to offer opportunities to young people, the members of Congress agreed to eliminate it altogether.
All of that is a tall order for the trustees. They demonstrated exemplary citizenship and fortitude when they dismissed Paterno and university president Graham Spanier on Wednesday night. As they continue their work, it is most important that they do it publicly and transparently. They cannot allow an atmosphere of denial and cover-up to continue. If their investigation uncovers embarrassing things, they must be forthcoming in describing them in detail and in public.
As the governing body of the university, the trustees must find and hire a new president and a new football coach. In theory, the trustees would hire the president and allow the president to hire the coach. But given Penn State's history, the coach very well could be the more important personnel move. As they search for a president and coach, the trustees must find leaders with the character and integrity required to undo the damage and establish a new order of priorities that goes beyond X's and O's and bowl games.
If the trustees can complete this work in the same way they made their decisions on Paterno and Spanier, they will be on their way to establishing a new model of "Success with Honor."
Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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