Blame will be assigned. Punishment will be meted. And by the time it’s over, Jerry Sandusky might not be the only former Penn State staffer behind bars.
Should, then, the NCAA bother with a case that lacks precedent and doesn’t appear to deal in any way with the issue of competitive advantage? Washington State’s athletic director isn’t so sure.
The conclusions reached by former FBI director Louis Freeh in his 267-page report are grim. Former school president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley and former coach Joe Paterno are all named as top officials who “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”
The evidence appears damning. Paterno’s legacy is forever tarnished. Spanier and Curley may face criminal charges.
But in terms of violations and possible sanctions, where does the NCAA fit in?
Reports published Tuesday indicated that Penn State will respond to the NCAA’s demand for information in the coming days, with the NCAA to determine whether PSU’s handling – or lack thereof – of the Sandusky scandal warrants penalty.
It does, according to WSU athletic director Bill Moos. Just not from the NCAA, most likely.
“At first glance, I have questions as to why the NCAA would be involved in something like this,” Moos said. “This is an institutional and even a state issue, and any reprimands or discipline, in my opinion, would come through those channels and not the NCAA’s. I’m not comfortable in understanding why they would be involved in this matter.
“I’d need to learn more about what their justification might be, and indeed there might be some, but at first glance I’m curious as to what that would be.”
If he’s right, the call by many for the NCAA’s “death penalty” – the forced discontinuation of a sports program for a predetermined period of time – seems a bit overwrought.
That penalty has only been enforced once upon a college football team, when Southern Methodist was banned from the 1987 and 1988 seasons after multiple recruiting violations. Critics of the penalty point to SMU’s continuing struggle as evidence that the death penalty should be a last resort.
“Say you’ve got a serial killer in some neighborhood,” WSU coach Mike Leach said via telephone earlier this week. “Do you condemn the whole neighborhood? How far does it go?”
Another larger, wider-reaching issue is the less-quantifiable debate over what figures are placed on a pedestal, and the culture of worship created around certain athletic departments because of it.
Paterno was seen as a near-saintly figure around Happy Valley. If a cover-up of Sandusky’s crimes did occur, as the Freeh Report suggests, it’s not illogical to assume that Paterno’s deity status played a factor.
And there are certainly other coaches – and universities, and fan bases – that could value their athletics programs on a similar, potentially dangerous level.
“In all my years I have not had a coach that strived for that,” said Moos, adding that he’ll address the protocol for reporting suspicious activity during the department’s first all-staff meeting in August. “But I see it observing. I observe other places that certainly can be and sometimes is the case. Any time you start to put that kind of hero worship into place, people can start to abuse it. I’m not saying that Joe Paterno did, but people can be tempted to abuse what they may feel is their popularity in a number of ways. We need to guard against that as administrators and make sure it doesn’t happen.”
But Leach doesn’t buy the argument that if it could happen at Penn State, it could happen anywhere.
“I know if there’s a criminal in your midst, you need to eradicate him and find a way to stick him in jail,” Leach said. “It appears to me that individuals at Penn State valued the reputation of Penn State more highly than they did the lives of young boys, which I think is ridiculously tragic. … It’s an oversimplification to suggest that this could happen everywhere. If the guy’s a criminal, find him, track him down and put him in jail.”
Leach, who said he hasn’t read the Freeh report, said he finds it hard to believe that there are schools that would lean toward a cover-up if encountered with a situation similar to Penn State’s.