Jerry Sandusky will not go gentle into that good prison cell. It seems that every few months brings another story, another sad reminder of the damage he did to our spirit and psyche.
When I say “our,” I am not just talking about those who actually went to Penn State, much less those who had any connection with the football team. I had neither. What I did have was an unwavering respect and affection for Joe Paterno, a profound appreciation for the type of community that supported him, and an understanding of that storied place’s history in the cloud-wreathed mountains and valleys of central Pennsylvania.
One man destroyed all of that. Sure, you could say that it was a collective failure to act, that the administrators are just as guilty as the pedophile (a jury will render the legal verdict, even though society has already weighed in with its moral judgment). You could argue that Coach Paterno was either a willing collaborator in evil or an addled and incompetent old man intent only on advancing his legacy as the quarterback advances the ball.
You could say those things, even though they’re colored by a hindsight that appears 20-20 but is, really, skewed by the cataracts of emotion and anger.
Still, for those who believe that everyone at Penn State knew what was going on and kept it under covers to protect the high and the mighty, Sandusky is simply the most vile but certainly not the only criminal in this scenario.
But what those who have anointed themselves judges cannot do, and what should not be done, is to blame the students for the crimes of their elders. These young people are also victims of Sandusky and, quite likely, of people who had some inkling of his crimes but were paralyzed by cowardice or avarice. The students didn’t defile the innocence of Sandusky’s targets. They did not see evil acts being committed in the shadows and showers and refuse to intervene. They did not engage in the cover-ups that, ultimately, destroyed the legacy of a place and a mighty personage like Joe Paterno.
They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, students of infinite good will who raised thousands upon thousands of dollars for pediatric-cancer research, who studied for degrees that will now be tainted with the Sandusky smear, who trained their minds and their muscles to bring glory to the place that they — and many of us — loved. They should not have been punished by the NCAA, and yet, they were.
When the athletic officials decided to levy $60 million in sanctions against the university, they were doing it at least partially to send a message: “We take this crime seriously, unlike all of the other crimes involving gambling and payments to amateur students and drug and alcohol abuse. Don’t look at what we failed to do in the past. Look at us, now, flexing our big administrative muscles. We mean business!”
In doing so, they dragged innocent people into the mix, sentencing the taxpayers of Pennsylvania to pay for the sins of a few warped men. It’s not even guaranteed that our money will remain in Pennsylvania since the NCAA has agreed to allocate only a quarter of the amount collected to programs in the commonwealth.
But the ones they really hurt were the students when they slashed scholarships to future scholar-athletes and banned PSU from postseason play. How many students who would otherwise have chosen to spend their formative years in Happy Valley with the hope of financial aid will now be forced to look elsewhere for their educations? How many of those students who had promising athletic careers will now be deprived of their first choice?
They say the school dodged the death-penalty bullet, but there seems to be little difference between the actual punishment and the threatened sanction.
As for Joe Paterno, as time passes and the fog of war clears, we are beginning to see that he was much less culpable than even his most determined critics wanted to believe. It is too late for him, now with the angels, except perhaps in the gracious hearts and minds of Pennsylvanians who understand human frailty. There he can regain some measure of the reputation he earned.
But the NCAA must be held accountable for overreach, and that is something that can be remedied. Kudos to Tom Corbett for seeking another kind of justice in the courts, justice for the innocent victims of a man and a school and a mentality. That the NCAA has actually come out and criticized the commonwealth for filing a lawsuit on antitrust grounds as being an “insult” to the children who were abused by Sandusky is nothing less than disgusting and misleading rhetoric.
Creating thousands of new victims does nothing to heal the wounds of those created by Sandusky. Hopefully, the courts will agree.