Initially, I looked for ways to defend “Joe Pa.” He had a strong reputation for integrity. The program had one of the best graduation rates for football players. The athletic department was one of the best I’d seen in terms of making sure players were staying on top of their studies. The players revered Paterno and the athletes who took my classes were solid students.
I wanted to believe when he said he knew nothing until 2001, that he did not know about the child sex abuse allegation against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky in 1998 and that when he finally was told three years later of an assistant coach’s suspicion of inappropriate behavior on Sandusky’s part, Paterno reported it to his superiors and trusted they were handling it.
The Freeh report investigating Sandusky’s behavior and the university’s response made it impossible to remain in denial.
If there is indeed a hell, it likely holds a special place for Sandusky, who was convicted last month of 45 counts of child sex abuse abuse for molesting young boys under his trust in a summer sports camp he directed on Penn State’s campus, as well as for the university officials who deliberately tried to keep news of Sandusky’s behavior under wraps for fear it would hurt the Division I football program, which brought the school an estimated $60 million a year.
Well, now the program is hurt anyway, thousands of students and alumni are hurt and a generation of college players are hurt to know that the exalted program they signed on to play for wasn’t quite what it seemed.
The NCAA announced Monday it would vacate 111 PSU wins, covering the period from 1998, when university officials first heard allegations of child abuse against Sandusky, through 2011, when the late head football coach Joe Paterno, then the winningest coach in college football, was fired.
In addition, the NCAA imposed a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban and the loss of 10 scholarships per year for the next four years, with a limit of 65 total scholarship players on the roster, as opposed to the typical 85, by the 2014 season. The school’s athletic department also will be on probation for five years.
I understand the need for a severe punishment. And even that will hardly make up for what happened to those boys, now young men and many of them still coming to terms with what occurred.
I understand that the elite football program made it possible for Sandusky to create a program and an environment that allowed him to molest those boys while higher-ups turned a blind.
But I also feel bad for the players who came to the school to play for a legend and wanted to be part of the school’s legacy and who now know that it was all just a mirage. They came to play for “Joe Pa”; they came to a storied program; they came because it was a program with one of the best graduation records in college football.
Clearly, those players have options. They can transfer and play elsewhere. But on one level their dreams have been dashed.
They may not be the most grievously injured victims in this whole episode, but they’ve been hurt.
It’s going to take the better part of a decade, most likely, for Penn State to recover.
I saw what was good about that place. I met brilliant students and wonderful, scholarly faculty and warm and caring staff. Every one of them is hurt in some way by this scandal.
There was a time when you told someone you attended, worked at or studied at Penn State when people would reply, “Ohhh!” with great admiration. Now announcing your affiliation with Penn State is like to be greeted with – “oh,” in that low key, quiet way that suggests pity.
The NCAA did what it felt it had to do – and there are some who think it still wasn’t enough – but what’s truly sad is that it had to do it.
—By Jackie Jones
Jackie Jones, a veteran journalist and journalism educator, is director of Jones Coaching LLC, a career transformation firm.