All that could be seen of Joe Paterno — as his bronze likeness was hauled off to what was, apparently without irony, described as a secure, undisclosed location — was a finger pointed skyward in the universal “we’re No. 1 gesture.” In this case, it had become an ironic gesture of humiliation.
In an appropriate twist of fate, the university was reaping what it had hoped to avoid in covering up allegations of sexual abuse of young boys by a former coach: negative publicity for the university and its football program. Now, until other scandals come along — and they will in big-time, big-dollar college football — the school is getting nothing but negative publicity.
Shame and embarrassment were not among the sanctions the NCAA imposed on Penn State, but they may be the most effective means of seeing that a similar situation never recurs there and of giving pause to others inclined to cover up crimes for the good of a football program and a university’s image.
The NCAA sanction actually had little or nothing to do with the crimes that prompted them. The football program is crippled for four years by a loss of 20 athletic scholarships each year, by a ban on post-season play, and by making it easier for players to transfer (and other schools to raid Penn State’s roster).
The NCAA imposed a $60 million fine. Also Monday, the Big Ten Conference announced Penn State would forfeit its share of proceeds over the next four years, estimated at $13 million. Both amounts will go toward child-protection programs.
In truth, this was not a matter for an athletic association but for law enforcement. It would have been, had Paterno and university officials not chosen to keep quiet for almost 13 years about allegations that a retired Penn State coach, Jerry Sandusky, was using university facilities and his perks as an ex-coach to sexually abuse young boys. Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of abusing young boys and is awaiting sentencing.
In an investigation belatedly commissioned by the university, emails turned up showing that Paterno and the administrators he technically reported to were more concerned with the football program’s reputation than the abused youngsters’ welfare. Moreover, Paterno, then the wins leader in major college football, had become such an institution that the Penn State hierarchy was unwilling, even afraid, to cross him.
As officials in a top-flight academic institution, they surely knew of Edmund Burke’s oft-cited observation, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” And that is what they did. Nothing.