PSU’s football culture to blame

You can read the Freeh Report cover to cover, spend hours soaking in every damning detail of how Penn State let a serial sexual predator operate within the cocoon of its football program. But what needs to happen now, what must start immediately, is spelled out in a tidy paragraph on Page 18.

"It is up to the entire University community — students, faculty, staff, alumni, the Board, and the administration — to undertake a thorough and honest review of its culture," the report states.

Penn State is supposed to play a football game against Ohio in seven weeks. How can a community review its culture when things like the defensive line and the quarterback battle suddenly become important again? How can a community be thorough and honest when it spends its fall Saturdays the same way it did for the past 50 years?

Yes, Penn State football needs to go away for a while. Not for the sake of punishment, at this point, as much as for mercy, for sanity. Everyone associated with the Jerry Sandusky scandal has been removed from the university. But that doesn’t mean Penn State is ready to move on from this. It can’t, and frankly, it won’t.

Part of this is practical. As painful as it would be to shut down the program, and perhaps unfair to those who had nothing to do with Sandusky’s crimes, it would be even worse to subject them to the week-in, week-out circus that will follow Penn State football for the foreseeable future.

New coach Bill O’Brien has consistently tried to look forward instead of backward, but he will soon find out how difficult — and perhaps impossible — it is to run a program so closely tied to the biggest scandal in the history of college athletics. You can’t hit the reset button on something like this in the span of 10 months.

But Penn State also faces a significant moral issue if it puts a football team on the field this year. How can the school, as a campus community, do what’s required to "undertake a thorough and honest review of its culture" if it enables 100,000 people to come to Beaver Stadium on Sept. 1?

The truth is, unless the NCAA steps in, Penn State will probably play football this fall because the amount of money at stake if it didn’t would be staggering. But that’s exactly where college football has gone wrong, gotten too big for educational institutions to control.

We celebrate the passion of football fans above all else, revel in the atmosphere of a Saturday on campus, and somehow we separate the mania from the kind of behavior it causes. See, Penn State will probably lose a lot of football games this year and the one after that and the one after that, and the fans will scream on talk radio and post on their message boards, and boosters will fire the coach responsible because 100,000 seats have to be filled and donation goals need to be met.

And when you combine that unbridled thirst with the money it generates and the power it fuels, anything can happen, even a football coach protecting someone as sick as Jerry Sandusky. Before the Freeh Report, it was assumed that Penn State officials didn’t turn in Sandusky in 2001 because it would have possibly led to the ouster of Joe Paterno, who was coming off a losing season at age 74.

Now we know Paterno and other powerful forces at the university knew about the allegations against Sandusky in 1998. That would have come out, certainly, had Sandusky been arrested and charged with his crimes in 2001. Paterno’s career wouldn’t have survived, so he chose to look out for his own interests instead of the countless boys Sandusky was raping.

There can be no doubt now; the football culture at Penn State and the self-preservation instincts of those who fostered it systematically protected a sexual predator after all. 

And though it happened at Penn State, it could happen anywhere. Football has become too important at too many schools, and it’s getting harder every year to tame the beast. America’s second-most popular sport has become its most uncivil enterprise.

We now know that Paterno, Tim Curley, Graham Spanier and Gary Schultz were bad people. But football helped make them that way. None of them started their careers so hungry for wealth and power that they could have imagined covering up such horrific crimes, all to protect some idea of what Penn State football was supposed to be. But they did, and that needs to be remembered for a long, long time.

But how can those lessons be learned if Penn State goes right back into the emotional blender of whether the Nittany Lions beat Iowa? It’s time to look inward, not plan a Saturday tailgate. An honest review doesn’t begin or end with a recruiting ranking. Penn State needs time to recalibrate, and being distracted by a football team isn’t the answer.