And so the penultimate act in the Greek tragedy that the Penn State University sex abuse scandal has become played out today as the NCAA fined the storied Nittany Lion football program $60 million, imposed a four-year ban on post-season play and vacated of all of the team’s victories from 1998 to 2011. The ultimate act will be the sentencing of pedophile football coach Jerry Sandusky and the tens of millions of dollars in settlements from lawsuits brought against an institution for whom protecting its image was more important than protecting vulnerable boys.
The punishment meted out by intercollegiate sports' governing body -- stiff but less severe than a "death penalty" that would have suspended the program for a period of time, nevertheless means that it will take the program years before it can return to the top echelon in which Penn State has dwelled for a half century and that disgraced former head coach Joe Paterno is no longer the major-college career leader in football wins. The $60 million fine will be used to endow child-abuse charities while the Big Ten also fined Penn State $13 million, which is equivalent to its post-season revenue.
Long story short, and as Andrew Sullivan notes, Paterno built one of the most successful collegiate football program ever and is now responsible for almost completely destroying it.
The post-season ban and scholarship restrictions also imposed by the NCAA will keep the program from fielding a team that can be competitive in the always tough Big Ten, but players will be allowed to transfer to another university where they could play immediately, meaning that there could be a mass exodus from Now Not So Happy Valley.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said that no punishment the governing body could impose would change the damage done by Sandusky’s acts, but “the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in collegiate athletics."
The package of punitive actions seems just about right.
The program will continue but will be hobbled for years, an ongoing reminder of the rot at its core that Paterno willfully ignored, while it will be left to players to decide whether their loyalty to Penn State will trump the desire to play for a competitive program prior to having the opportunity to be drafted by a National Football League team as many Nittany Lions have been.
The last Penn State victory that will officially count came in 1997. The quarterback of that team was Mike McQueary, who became an integral part of the investigation into Sandusky after witnessing him sexually assaulting a boy in the showers of the football building.
Some commentators were critical of the NCAA action. Penn State did not actually violate the NCAA rulebook and it is unclear whether it even had jurisdiction.
Opined Drew Magary: "I couldn't give two f---s what happens to the football team -- dress them in white unitards and make them a French mime troop, for all I care -- but there's nothing more ridiculous than watching the NCAA parade around its values and make frowny faces on national television, months and months after the scandal broke (and years and years after evil was allowed to take root)."
The announcement came a day after the statue of Paterno was removed from outside Beaver Stadium. It was a belated if necessary action that was blunted by the news that Paterno’s name will remain on the campus library, which may be indicative of a skin-deep commitment to reform by the university administration and trustees since anything with the coach’s name on it presumably would be a "recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been the victims of child abuse," as university President Rodney Erickson put it in announcing removal of the statue.
The scandal led to the removal of Erickson's predecessor and ouster of Paterno, as well as the filing of criminal charges against two other top university officials. A report commissioned by Penn State’s board of trustees and compiled by Louis J. Freeh, a former F.B.I. director, found a series of failures all the way up the university’s chain of command that it concluded were the result of an insular and complacent culture in which football was revered.
Nearly three weeks after release of the Freeh report, a work crew arrived before dawn on Sunday and used jackhammers and a forklift to unceremoniously remove the statue of Paterno from its spot outside the football stadium, draping the figure in a blue tarp before hauling it off to an undisclosed locations and in so doing dismantling an iconic tribute to a coach who won more college football games than any other but has now had many of those victories vacated.
A lot of people believe that Paterno was neither villain nor saint. I held to that view after the initial revelations that Sandusky was a serial pedophile and that the university and possibly Paterno himself had engineered a cover-up. But with the drip, drip, drip of revelations since then and the release of Freeh’s damning 267-page report, I have changed my mind.
National championships do not counterbalance sexual abuse, and Paterno’s accomplishments and legacy no longer matter to me.
That he, a Roman Catholic as is Sandusky, could not summon the moral strength to do the right thing and instead deliberately and repeated concealed facts about Sandusky’s predatory behavior speaks volumes about the man he really was: A craven coward for whom image was everything (“Success with honor” was his motto) and sodomized boys were not to be fretted over. And was so powerful that the university did his bidding years after first learning of the scandal and even gave him a raise and lucrative other benefits.
Paterno’s family remains in deep denial as had the coach himself prior to his death in January.
The family has denied the Freeh report’s claims and said it plans its own review of the investigation. In a statement, the family said that removing the statue “does not serve the victims” or “help heal the Penn State community.”
Photograph by Patrick Smith/Getty Images