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Penn State shows danger of putting sports beyond reproach

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was criticized for failing to take action on allegations that an assistant coach sexually abused children. Yesterday, he was fired from his position.
Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was criticized for failing to take action on allegations that an assistant coach sexually abused children. Yesterday, he was fired from his position.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

TO MANY AT Pennsylvania State University, the beloved football program there long seemed beyond reproach, but that lofty reputation may have led to tragic consequences. State prosecutors and police have accused longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky of sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years, and laid out a narrative in which campus officials, including legendary football coach Joe Paterno, failed to take reports of misconduct by Sandusky seriously. The ouster late yesterday of Paterno, Penn State’s most towering figure, was overdue. The scandal should start a national conversation—perhaps including congressional hearings—on how the pursuit of athletic glory has created sports subcultures on campuses in which no one is accountable to anyone.

Penn State long had one of the nation’s most widely admired football programs. Led by Paterno, the winningest Division I coach, players succeeded not just on the field but in the classroom; the program graduated about nine out of every 10 football players. But if prosecutors’ accounts are correct, the program’s pristine image helped Sandusky, an assistant coach for three decades and founder of a disadvantaged children’s charity, gain access to young victims. There were reports about Sandusky sexually assaulting boys, including in the Penn State football shower room. Sandusky retired in 1999, but was still allowed to be on campus years later. Just two years ago—long after witnesses say they reported abuses by Sandusky—the school was still promoting a football camp bearing his name at a satellite campus.

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The scandal has already resulted in the resignations of Penn State’s athletic director and the school’s vice president who oversees campus police. Both have been charged with perjury and failing to properly report the abuse. Paterno himself has not been charged with wrongdoing, but he is clearly in denial. Saying he will retire at the end of the football season, he has been attending practices as if nothing is wrong. The Penn State board of trustees has sent the right message by pushing out Paterno. The departure of Penn State President Graham Spanier—who, ironically, is a trained family therapist—is warranted as well.

By now, college-sports watchers have become sadly accustomed to scandals involving recruiting violations and improper payments to athletes. The damage from those transgressions doesn’t remotely approach the emotional suffering of Sandusky’s alleged victims, who were as young as 8. Yet there is a common feature: a culture that turns athletes into gods and coaches into high priests. When eyes became so blind as to sweep child abuse under the table at one of the most revered programs in the country, the need for a culture of accountability in big-time college sports is more urgent than ever.

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