Over the course of the last few months, I’ve been hesitant to write much on the Penn State football scandal. The allegations (and later proven facts) were so damning, the crimes so sickening and the severity of it all so far-reaching, that other than writing a bit when the news first broke, I decided to otherwise stay away. At the time what we needed was actual time; time to learn the facts, time to let everyone have their day in court, and only at that time, let a judge and jury determine the fate of Jerry Sandusky. Even when he was found guilty, I let the big writers, from the big outlets handle the heavy lifting. After all, they were on the ground and in the court room. What could I possibly add that they hadn’t already covered?
But with the release of the Freeh report yesterday, I do feel like I should speak up and say something.
Unfortunately by now you’ve probably read the report, or at least gotten gist of it from others have who have. You know beyond a reasonable doubt that along with Joe Paterno, Penn State President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley knew about Sandusky’s crimes and had the chance to stop them, or at the very least report them to the proper authorities who could. Unfortunately, they all chose to turn a blind eye. Today, you’re also probably having debates with friends and family about Paterno’s legacy and whether the NCAA needs to step in and take football away from Penn State for a little while.
Those though, are conversations for another day. Right now the pressing issue isn’t trying to change the past, but instead ensure nothing like this ever happens in the future, be it in Happy Valley or anywhere else. Regardless of whether you’re a Penn State fan or not, I think we can all agree on that.
Except after reading the Freeh Report yesterday, going through it page by page, detail by painfully excruciating detail, I’ve come to a conclusion no one else seems to be talking about: What happened at Penn State simply couldn’t have happened anywhere else. The whole situation was the perfect storm of an overmatched small town, fearful administration and the all-consuming power of one long-standing head football coach. While Sandusky’s crimes themselves unfortunately weren’t unique, the environment in which he was allowed to operate, and the sociological elements under which they happened were totally one of a kind.
It starts at the top, and starts with Paterno, who- as we all now know- played a much bigger role in the cover-up of than any of us cared to admit. We already knew that Paterno was aware of inappropriate behavior on Sandusky’s part all the way back to 1998, and we also already knew about the incident Mike McQueary witnessed in 2001 and Paterno’s slow-paced, ignorant and at times non-existent response to such a serious and alarming crime.
But ultimately this isn’t about what we already knew, but instead the new facts the Freeh report told us yesterday. And there is one fact that was held in long-standing belief that was proven beyond a reasonable doubt with the report yesterday: Joe Paterno had control over absolutely, positively everything that went on in Happy Valley, not only in his football program, but at the university and in the community as well. Everyone answered to him, and everyone feared him, two of the most contradictory emotions a human can possess. The worst kind of power is absolute power. And during the years that Sandusky ran wild Paterno had no shortage of that.
Again, we already kinda, sorta knew that. But two things from the Freeh Report proved it.
The first came from an incident which we already semi-knew about, when on one night in 2000, two separate janitors working in Penn State’s football facilities saw Jerry Sandusky engaging in inappropriate behavior in the showers with a small boy. I’ll let you read the gory details in the report if you please.
The sad thing though is what the Freeh report revealed yesterday, which was the simple fact that neither man reported it for fear of losing their jobs. The exact quote that one of the janitors told Freeh, was that trying to fight Paterno “would have been like going against the President of the United States.” Wow. Those are some damn chilling words.
Now, whether you want to condemn the two janitors for not taking action or not, I’ll leave up to you (in their defense, sociological studies indicate that the more people who witness a crime, the less likely each individual is to report it). But regardless of what you think of their inaction, you do need to understand one thing: The man who said Paterno was as powerful as the President was right. Paterno had control over everyone, including his boss, Athletic Director Tim Curley, someone who was described as Paterno’s “errand boy,” by a department official in the Freeh Report.
Think about that for a second. Someone who worked closely with both men, called Curley, the man hired to oversee Paterno, his “errand boy.” Who do you think had the upper-hand in that relationship? Who do you think was calling the shots?
More importantly, in what other major college football program could you see that happening? For those who answered, “Aaron, that happens everywhere,” you’d be fundamentally wrong.
No, this couldn’t have happened anywhere.
Because while all college football coaches possess insane amounts of power, and many of them too much for their own good, none possessed the absolute power that Paterno had acquired after decades at the job. For those arguing that this could’ve happened anywhere, wasn’t it like three months ago that the University of Arkansas fired arguably their most successful football coach in the last 50 years because of a non-football related thing? Didn’t Ohio State recently let go of a head coach who won 10 games a year as easily as you and I put on pants in the morning because of a few relatively minor lies he told? Didn’t Butch Davis get canned at North Carolina too? Only at Penn State, where the head football coach had the autonomy and oversight that Paterno had, could something like this go on for as long as it did. Again, this isn’t about the power of a “football program” but the power of one man.
As a matter of fact, I find it ironic that with the bloom now off the rose, everyone is trying to lump Penn State in with everyone else and say that this is a case of “the power of a football program overruling the power of a university.” Sorry, you’re wrong. If anything, it’s the opposite: The power gleaned from Paterno’s longevity at Penn State made this only possible in this exact circumstance. This football program isn’t like “everyone else.” It is the most extreme, of extreme outliers.
Now, granted, are there plenty of places where football means a little bit too much? Of course there are. Frankly, its many more schools than most people care to admit. At those places, wins and losses- and the anxiety that comes with the latter- cost coaches and administrators their jobs each and every year.
It’s also the exact reason why Sandusky’s crimes could’ve only happened at Penn State.
Remember, the first known, reported incident of potentially inappropriate behavior between Sandusky and a small boy came in 1998… 32 years after Paterno arrived at Penn State, and 29 years after Sandusky followed him as an assistant coach. Say what you want about Sandusky, but by 1998 it’s hard to argue the equity he had built up in the community, and the friends and allies willing to cover for him, or at the very least give him every benefit of the doubt when the allegations (later proved to be crimes), surfaced. Read the Freeh report, and you’ll see there were countless opportunities for everyone to stop Sandusky- not just Paterno; Spanier, Schultz and Curley were just as guilty- and all they ever did was sit on their hands, and brush the subject under the rug. It’s ironic, but the thing that made Penn State so unique- the family community around it- was what helped rot it from within.
Now, compare that with other places which care a little too much about football. Sure, there are any number of schools where the program means too much and the coaches get away with more than they should. But to get away with what Sandusky did? It would’ve never happened anywhere else, and it’s because of what I talked about before: The dynamics unique to Penn State.
Think about it this way: Alabama has had four football coaches since 1998… you think there would be a 40+ year infrastructure in place to help protect a sick, twisted, deranged former coach like Sandusky had in Happy Valley? Just stop it. Same with Michigan, Tennessee or Florida, where coaches and administrations have turned over two or three separate times in the past decade. Heck, as a buddy pointed out to me the other day, Bobby Petrino couldn’t even get the local police to cover up a damn motorcycle accident three months ago. Think they’d let a guy with a 15-year track record of inappropriate behavior walk around as a free man? It’s highly doubtful.
Speaking of the police, they played a role in this too.
The simple fact is that they had Sandusky, caught, trapped and dead to rights back in 1998. At the time a concerned mother reported an incident between Sandusky and her son to authorities, they investigated Sandusky, questioned him… and simply dropped the ball. At the time they didn’t believe they had enough evidence to bring about charges, and from there Sandusky was free for the next 14 years. We already knew about this thanks to the original Grand Jury report.
But again, this isn’t about what we already knew, but instead putting it into the context of what we learned yesterday, and the Freeh report again proved that the circumstances at Penn State were a perfect storm for Sandusky to operate. The town of Happy Valley- a small, quiet place where seemingly nothing ever goes wrong- was literally incapable of handling such a complicated criminal case.
No…they were literally incapable.
And if you don’t believe me, just go to yesterday’s Freeh Report findings. There, you’ll see this very cryptic quote right, smack dab at the bottom of page 45 in regards to the reported incident by the woman:
“The law enforcement officers did not question Sandusky at the time. Had the officers been better trained in the investigation of childhood sexual abuse, they would have interrogated Sandusky directly after his confrontation with the boy’s mother. A timely interview with Sandusky may have elicited candid responses such as identification of other victims.”
See what I’m saying, and see why I say that what happened with Sandusky couldn’t have happened anywhere else? Seriously, could Sandusky have gotten away with his crimes in a more complex, dynamic and crime-ridden college town like Knoxville, Columbus or Los Angeles, where the police force would be more adept to deal with this stuff? It seems unlikely. And really, it’s hard to blame the Penn State PD for this either… since again, this stuff NEVER happens there. They were literally incapable of handling such a serious crime and investigation.
Look, at the end of the day, that no matter what we’ve learned over the past few months, the truth is that none of it is any solace to the victims and people in the Penn State community. All the findings don’t take away the pain caused, or the harm inflicted by Sandusky. They certainly don’t take away from the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of so many who could’ve prevented it, from Paterno, to the people tasked to oversee him, and the police department that simply dropped the ball on this entire investigation. Penn State will never be the same, and our perception of the school never will be either. Most importantly, there are lives that will never be the same as well.
But if we learned one thing in this process that was confirmed by the Freeh Report yesterday, it’s that the circumstances at Penn State were entirely unique to Penn State.
The dynamics of football, the town and involved make it unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, or ever will again.
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