Penn State's cratering of college football: real lessons to be learned?

UW loses, the Cougars win, but on college football's darkest day when it was hard to care about the games.

UW loses, the Cougars win, but on college football's darkest day when it was hard to care about the games.

During this month of calendar-date palindromes, it’s something of a grim coincidence that the year’s (decade’s?) major college-football story concerns an alleged sexual deviant less suited for Penn State than the state pen.

On Saturday (Nov. 12), though, as tens of millions watched hundreds of football games for a dozen-odd hours, the major name that was hard to ignore wasn’t Joe Paterno or Andrew Luck but Jerry Sandusky. On Nov. 5 the former Penn State assistant coach, after an arraignment on 40 criminal counts, was — inexplicably — released on $100,000 bail. As the week dragged on, seemingly everyone not in comas became aware of the scandal that is so familiar now that its sordid details needn’t even be reiterated.

The scandal was the proverbial elephant in the room all day Saturday, no matter whether the “room” was at home, at a tavern, or the expanse of a football stadium. Before Penn State took the field at 9 a.m. Pacific time, the scandal already had received intense Saturday-morning commentary on TV and radio. Seldom has a scheduled game broadcast seemed so appropriate, with the typical on-field drama secondary to the more pressing matters. What would happen? What would be said?

By most accounts the Pennsylvania faithful comported themselves respectably, but the game, lost at home to Nebraska, seemed to be a kind of distant diversion. It was as though the outcome didn’t much matter, not after the enormity of the scandal.

The pall cast by the Sandusky ordeal seemed to carry over throughout the day. Some of us who hung on the periphery of what otherwise would’ve been a spectacular college-football Saturday felt detached from the action. Huskies run over by USC? Yeah, but so what? Ducks thump Stanford and fly to the top shelf of the Pac-12? Who cares? A green freshman leads the Cougars to an improbable win against Arizona State? Fine, but does it matter so much given the scandal at Penn State?

Sandusky and his enablers, at least for the time being, have trivialized the game on the field. Had Penn State officials addressed the alleged Sandusky deeds in the appropriate way, the former assistant’s behavior obviously wouldn’t have been any less reprehensible. But at least members of the public would’ve had the sense that necessary oversight had prevailed.

Instead many have been saying in various ways for a week: Is this what it’s come to? Is a school’s football program genuinely the major raison d’etre of the institution?

Midweek it was difficult to argue otherwise, as Nittany Lion partisans — students, shamefully — reacted to Wednesday’s firing of The Great God Coach JoePa as though it were an injustice tantamount to Truman sacking MacArthur.

At Beaver Stadium Saturday, fan emotions seemed mercifully stifled. Apparently it had started to dawn on thoughtful observers that the victim in this tragedy scarcely is Paterno. Indeed, detached, rational observers would have to conclude that a man hailed by so many for so long as an exemplar of managerial skill can no longer be admired if it proves he was as lax as it seems about dealing with information he concedes he was given nine years ago about Sandusky’s alleged crimes.

Nor, of course, will college football — talk about too big to fail — be a lasting victim of what happened at Penn State. If anything, the scandal will prevail as an oft-told cautionary tale about what not to do when crimes and transgressions are alleged.

The scandal also, many are hoping, will prompt rallying cries for greater awareness of predatory sex crimes. Assuming he’s found guilty of crimes that could get him sentenced to more than 400 years in jail, the alleged sex predator could still serve an inadvertent useful purpose. That would happen, perhaps, if, every time adults who should know better sensed similar crimes and improprieties, they immediately went to the proper authorities and said:

“I think we may have another Jerry Sandusky.


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