Cancel Football for a Season or Two

07.02.12

Paterno, Penn State, and Civic Morality

As CNN disclosed over the weekend, the higher-ups at Penn State had a plan on February 26, 2001, to report Jerry Sandusky (that is, Mike McQueary's eyewitness statement) to state authorities. The next day, they changed course and decided not to. What happened in between? They consulted Joe Paterno.

It's hard to avoid any conclusion other than that Paterno told AD Tim Curley no, don't go to the authorities, we'll handle this internally. Sandusky spent another several years penetrating underage boys' anuses.

Paterno's dead of course. It seems he could very easily be charged, if alive, with a serious felony, and in moral terms, an utterly unspeakable one. He did great things for his university, but he can no longer in any way be called a great man. Are we still going to see these yahoos on TV this fall, though, saying what a great man he is? Of course we are. People can deny reality far more easily than they can accept or recognize it, usually.

Beastie Buzz Bissinger is exactly right today, if you haven't read him:

The Department of Welfare was never contacted. There was no attempt to locate the child who was later found by a jury to have been victimized by Sandusky. Perhaps because the emails show that the primary concern, the only concern, was making sure that Jerry was treated kindly. So he had a little problem with a young boy in the shower, straddling him from behind in what anyone would have construed as forced anal intercourse? Jerry Sandusky wasn’t a crisis: a football team that had gone 5–7 the season before was a crisis. What had happened to a 10-year-old boy wasn’t a tragedy; losing to Toledo at home on national television was a tragedy. The most important element of the Jerry Sandusky matter was to keep it mum.

I still say that in the name of decency, Penn State should cancel a football season or two. What that program permitted to happen, using its good name and its facilities, is just about one of the worst things in the world. Child sexual abuse. What's worse? Not much. Maybe nothing. And Penn State football sanctioned it. For years. Everyone at Penn State needs to come to terms with that.

This is basic civic morality, which I spoke of recently in the Jamie Dimon context. Institutions must take responsibility for the bad things they have done. No institution ever does. They let one or two people go to jail, they pay fines without admitting guilt, and life continues. Dimon will make however many millions he'll make this year. And in State College, they'll all convince themselves that justice has been done because Sandusky is in jail, and Joe is still great and I don't care what anybody says, and can we please get to the important stuff and figure out what the hell is wrong with our running game.

It's nauseating. Penn State should halt football for a while. Maybe then, everyone would understand how hideous and corrupt this was.

Almost all of you, conservative and liberal, will say but that's just harming the players who are innocent. This shows only that the idea that there should even be such a thing as institutional civic morality in our culture has become so nonexistent that it doesn't even enter your minds.I submit to you that 40 years ago, it would have entered your minds.

Our country has changed in many ways for the worse since then, and in ways you conservatives should lament. Money trumps morality. Conservatives talk about morality, but we keep being reminded which one they really care about.

Yes, what I propose is perhaps unfair to the blameless. But every decision is a balancing act, and civic morality, and the idea of an institution taking responsibility for a change, especially over something this heinous, weighs far more to me than the hurt feelings of the boys.

Keep 'em on scholarship, let them get their educations. That's allegedly why they're there in the first place, right? That's what old Joe would've said, publicly, anyway.

All we have in this society is a race to the civic bottom. No one takes responsibility for anything. We're not a society, really; just a series of markets. Penn State won't do what I propose because of the billions it would lose. That's all. It's really sickening.

But I do not say end college football! Perhaps colleague Buzz and I will debate that question in late August.