Back in 1984 I was still clearing my throat as a sports columnist but had already made a recurring topic of the crimes and deceptions of big-time college sports. My November 9 column of that year was about schools that hoked up their jock-graduation rates for public consumption.
Exhibit A was Penn State. In interviews and in university publications Nittany Lions’ head coach Joe Paterno and his aides, and other university officials, noised it about that the school graduated more than 90% of its varsity football players, a very high figure. As was (is) their wont, most sporting news mediums repeated those claims without verifying them, which amounted to endorsements.
To see what was doing I phoned the Penn State athletics department. I was shuffled around until I wound up with one Dave Baker, its information director. He told me the 90% figure was “pretty accurate,” but only if one counted players who’d reached their senior years at the school. “Actually,” he hedged further, “the figure used to be 90%. We think it’s dropped a shade the past few years but we don’t know. We haven’t calculated it lately.”
I asked about players who flunked out, transferred or otherwise dropped out before their four years of athletic eligibility expired. Baker said Penn State had never kept track of those, yet in the next breath he contested as too low one published report that had put the school’s overall football graduation rate at 67% because he said it miscounted dropouts. He took issue with an NFL Players Association finding that 61% (24 of 39) of the Penn State products who were in the NFL the previous year (1983) were degree holders, on grounds it was based on self reporting. Why he thought anyone with a degree would claim not to have one, he didn’t say.
In the piece I nailed a few other schools for similar fibs, including Alabama and Nebraska, but I’ve since regarded Penn State athletics with special skepticism. That’s because outfits that lie about small things will lie about larger ones. Also, under Paterno’s “Success With Honor” banner, it was one of a handful of universities that make, or have made, special claims to sanctity, a “We Do Things Right” Club that sets itself above the common scrum.
Michigan was part of this group until it was revealed that Ed Martin, a Detroit racketeer, was the sugar daddy of its Fab Five-era basketball teams. Notre Dame’s long membership has been punctured many times, most lately by episodes involving a young woman who committed suicide after the university didn’t promptly pursue her claim to have been raped by a Notre Dame football player (no charges have been brought against the player, partly because the woman isn’t alive to testify against him) and another in which a student died after coaches sent him up in a cherry-picker during a wind storm to videotape football practice, and the thing blew over. It doesn’t get worse than that, and it’s beyond me why no Domer heads have rolled as a result.
Strictly speaking, the current Penn State scandal, involving a long-time top assistant of Paterno’s who is accused of sexually molesting (so far) eight boys over a 15-year period, isn’t about sports. Rather, it’s another example of the corporate “damage control” mentality at work in institutions that, supposedly, are devoted to higher things than profit and hierarchal protection. The Roman Catholic Church’s leaders in many countries have fit that mold during the seemingly endless revelations about sexual-predator priests. So has the Boys Scouts of America in its handling of similar matters.
The involvement of Penn State coaches and officials in the alleged predations of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky pivots on a night in March, 2002, when a graduate-assistant coach, visiting the football locker room to complete some chores, reportedly witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in a shower room. Rather than go to police immediately (or punch out Sandusky), the young man reportedly went home to mull his options. The next day he told his boss, Paterno, who told his boss, the school’s athletics director, who told his boss, a university vice-president, who told his boss, President Graham Spanier.
Apparently, none of them told the cops, meaning that, for at least the last nine years, they engaged in a coverup, allowing Sandusky to pursue his pleasures at the expense of boys involved in the youth charity he’d organized. For that entity’s events he was given the use of Penn State facilities, and he was spotted in the football complex as recently as the week before the allegations surfaced.
Knowing what they did, the thought that the Penn State honchos allowed ol’ Jer to go on doing what he was doing—maybe even under their noses-- boggles the mind. Paterno was rightly fired, along with the AD, VP and prez. Along with Sandusky, the AD and VP face criminal charges for not reporting his violations. Based on available evidence one must wonder why Paterno and Spanier haven’t been charged, too.
Among the many appalling things in this appalling episode was the reaction of some Penn State students. They chanted in Paterno’s support before he was fired on Wednesday night, and rioted in protest after the move was announced. The college-sports Establishment, including its governing body the NCAA, is ruled by the principle that the show must go on, no matter what offenses surround it. Now it seems that some of our young believe this, too.