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When Legends Fall

POSTED: November 11, 2011, 12:00 am

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Watching video footage of angry Penn State students turning over a television news van and expressing anger over the termination of the university’s football coach Joe Paterno was surreal. Did these students read the Grand Jury report that paints a picture of Paterno’s failure to grasp the severity of information relayed to him that one of his staff, Jerry Sandusky, was seen acting inappropriately with a boy? Were the students that filled with rage, intoxicated, or both, to fail to grasp that children had been abused by a member of the football coaching staff and that their “Joe Pa” had failed to notify law enforcement? Maybe they missed the fact that it was multiple children and that their coaching legend stood by his assistant, knowing full well that there was a predator in the midst. Whatever accounts for the students ignorance it demonstrates why big-time college sports has become a money lined cesspool.

The university’s Board of Trustees should be commended for their swift dismissal of Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier. Had they allowed the coach to set the terms of his departure the Board would have made a mockery of a great state university. Paterno deserved what he got, and for that matter Spanier as well, for their utter failure to protect the welfare of the children who were victimized. It took a truck load of chutzpah for Joe Paterno to think he could lead the Nittany Lions onto the field Saturday and conduct business as usual. Had that happened Penn State University, and college football in general, would have received a permanent black eye.

“The one person who could have quickly ended this nightmare was Joe Paterno”

Joe Paterno was the most powerful man in the Penn State athletic department and perhaps in the entire university. It has been said that the football program brings in $70 million annually, and if you can’t fathom how a football coach can be so prominent, just angle a ticket to see Penn State play before 100,000 fans at Beaver Stadium. The one person who could have quickly ended this nightmare was Joe Paterno. Forget the chain of command nonsense. There is no one in that athletic department, regardless of title who held as much sway as Joe Paterno. Penn State football makes the athletic program at the university possible and no one was as independent or influential as the head coach. It is why Paterno could rebuff president Spanier’s attempt to “retire” the coach a couple of seasons ago. Money talks and Joe Paterno had the keys to the vault.

Penn State must now make this right. The university can begin by starting Saturday’s game with a moment of reflection before the kick-off, and asking colleges across the country to do the same, and then having a statement read over the public address system expressing its remorse over the abuse of children by one of its own. This would be a good time for those rioting students to reclaim a bit of their humanity and dignity too. Penn State must fire anyone who had knowledge of Sandusky’s behavior and did not report it to the authorities. The university also needs to fully cooperate with law enforcement and do everything possible to assist the victims and their families. As a sign of the university’s acknowledgment of the wretched nature of this scandal it should commit to creating a national center for the prevention of child abuse on its campus.

While this episode falls outside of the NCAA’s traditional purview, it is important that the governing body of collegiate athletics takes decisive action against Penn State. For all the fuss the NCAA makes over violations of rules that on their face smack of hypocrisy, it cannot allow Penn State to go unscathed. There should be no bowl appearances and no eligibility for conference championships, and a ban from television appearances. Moreover, the team’s record for this year should be forfeited since it came under the leadership of its disgraced coach. Some will call such punishment unfair to the current players on the team. I prefer to call it a life lesson, in keeping with Paterno’s professed belief in “honor.” There would be nothing more honorable than for the Penn State football team to forfeit its season in respect to the victims in this matter. It is the only way that Happy Valley will regain what its name implies.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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