Jan 24 6:10 PM ET

In post-Paterno world, athletes have important role

I used to run on a treadmill next to Gary Barnett.

It was spring 2003. I was on the University of Colorado women's basketball team, he was the head coach of our football program, and the treadmills faced the glass windows of CU's vast weight room. The view was of the interior bowl of Folsom Field, framed majestically by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Barnett would run his couple of miles, then grab his towel and wish me well, always smiling and using my first name.

When people ask how appalled I was by the CU recruiting sex scandal, which engulfed our school in 2004, I don't know exactly how to explain my insufficient disgust. When I'm out to dinner and the conversation turns to the Penn State scandal -- and others are baffled by the overwhelming inaction of the authority figures on that campus -- I don't know how to convey the unthinkable: that I understand how such a thing could happen.

Those moments on the treadmill were only a few out of thousands. Each one was like a brick that helped build the house in which we, the student-athletes, lived: dining together at the training table, collecting our stipend checks, studying together in the lounge, collecting our gear from the back room, receiving our blank invoices for books from the student union, even worshipping together at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. We were fed, clothed, housed and nurtured. If you spend enough time inside this culture, you begin thinking the arena roof is the sky: No higher power exists outside.

And so for years I found myself defending the football team's actions -- I actually used the phrase, "I don't think we're being fairly portrayed" -- to anyone who would listen. I placed our collective embarrassment and the reputation of our institution over the pain of the alleged victims. There were even times when we, the student-athletes, wondered aloud why the issue wasn't handled quietly, internally.

Isn't that how all families handle things? Quietly, internally? If you saw an uncle harming a cousin, you'd tell your father. It's frightening, but if you step back to think about it, this was the alleged sequence of events at PSU.

It wasn't until the news broke about Penn State that I questioned my stance as a CU apologist. Before, I could allow my memories of Boulder to cloud the reality of what happened. I could make any number of excuses to cast blame onto CU's alleged victims (there was alcohol at the recruiting parties, Barnett's quotes were taken out of context). But this insider subtext, which I employed to avoid assessing blame on the school I love, is much more elusive when considering the accusations in Happy Valley. For, on the surface, nothing could be more black and white than a grown man harming an innocent child. And although the alleged crimes at each institution are vastly different, they are connected by the same thread: a remarkable abuse of power inside a high-powered NCAA institution.

Before I joined espnW, I wrote a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer about life inside the bubble of big-time athletics. Those words were written three months ago, when the pressing question was still, "How did this happen?" Today, as we mourn the passing of former Penn State coach Joe Paterno (whose final months were tragic whether you choose to remember his successes as a coach or question his alleged failure as a leader), the pressing question is different: "What needs to change?"

Although it likely isn't the legacy he would have preferred, perhaps Paterno can spark student-athletes, and the staffs charged with leading them, to think differently, to step outside of the bubble, to establish roots outside of the athletic department. It's a small step, but every big-time student-athlete can make a change I wish I had made: create a life outside of the athletic department. When I think back on my years in Boulder, I see only a kid in black-and-gold sweats, a kid who very easily could have made the same mistake Penn State graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary allegedly made: staying in-house, doing too little and inherently trusting the chain of command.

We used to call CU's students, those who didn't play sports, "Normies," our slang for "Normal." At the time, I thought we were clever. It's only now -- and it's only because of the Penn State scandal -- that I can recognize how dangerous that language, and idea, was. We would see students lounging on the grass while we walked to practice, and we'd comment about the easy life of a "Normie." We had clearly drawn a line, and it was noticeable in our dress, our thoughts, even in our words. So, in retrospect, it strikes me as understandable that when someone from the outside world threatened our culture, we fought ignorantly to protect it, as if it was us versus them, as if we were separate.

Student-athletes must challenge the bubble in which they live. It's no easy task, because the cocoon is self-sustaining, but it will be the ideas and viewpoints gained outside of those walls that will pop open the arena top and reveal a view of the sky. And that will be the first step toward ensuring a tragedy like the one in Happy Valley never happens again.

School pride is commendable, but we can't allow it to morph into blind allegiance.

Kate Fagan is a columnist for espnW. You can follow her on Twitter @katefagan3.