Must Penn State Cleanse?

Remaking Penn State football with some grand gesture isn't as simple as an outraged public might think, and so far, calls to cancel the upcoming season have gone unanswered. But without doing so, can the university really move on?

July 17, 2012

Though it would have seemed unthinkable before last week, the situation at Pennsylvania State University, where a respected former assistant football coach used his connections to the program to draw in the young boys whom he later raped on campus property, was even worse than anyone imagined. Worse because not only did administrators and coaches enable Jerry Sandusky’s heinous acts -- leading ultimately to their own professional demise -- they did so knowingly.

The revelation last week that incriminating facts regarding Sandusky were covered up by those top officials – including President Graham Spanier and the beloved, legendary head coach Joe Paterno – triggered a storm of fury from a stunned public. Demands came for the university to rid the campus of its most visible homage to Paterno, a bronze statue outside the football stadium. Other commentators went further, saying that canceling the upcoming season (and maybe more) might be the only way to show that this is not a university ruled by the sport.

Penn State’s lack of response to those demands hasn’t slowed their momentum, and in the context of the university’s mammoth and defining football program, meeting either request would constitute an almost unimaginable (though not necessarily unwarranted) grand gesture. But while suspending football or cleansing the campus of Paterno’s name and image may not be entirely realistic or feasible, many are wondering how the program can possibly move on otherwise – or, at least, how it can move on with a clean slate.

“I can’t see any other action that shows that great intersection of wanting to do better -- introspection, remorse, pain, leadership, humanity, empathy -- in its real sense,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport and Society program. “If they’re hoping for football to return to prominence, wouldn’t they want it also under a cleansed brand?”

Paterno’s supporters once rallied around the statue of the head coach outside Beaver Stadium; immortalized as an “educator/coach/humanitarian,” he hoists a "No. 1" finger into the air with images of athletes following behind him. But that sentiment seems all but impossible to find now, as calls for the statue to be torn down became so overwhelming they led one Penn State trustee to say the statue would stay up, for now. (Sixty percent of participants in an ESPN poll over the weekend want the statue torn down; 20 percent said leave it, and the rest said decide later.)

What Penn State should do in the wake of its shattered image is anything but simple.

“The board has an imperative to take strong, demonstrable action to both rein in and possibly even punish the football program itself, as it would other renegade programs within the institution,” James J. Duderstadt, a former president  of the University of Michigan, said in an e-mail message. But, he continued, “While canceling the football season would certainly demonstrate who is in control, it would run afoul of the many existing contractual commitments and likely trigger an avalanche of lawsuits.” (Those could come from television networks, others in the Big Ten conference, and brands that sponsor the team, to name a few.)

Instead, Duderstadt suggested, the board could take aim at the culprit of big-time athletics’ growing independence from and disregard for the institutions that supposedly house them: “the greed of coaches and senior athletic departments staff (and perhaps university presidents who tend to benefit as their own compensation is swept along by the rapid escalation of salaries in 'auxiliary' activities such as athletics).” Vow to compensate athletic department staff at levels more consistent with the rest of the university, Duderstadt says, and the trustees can get to the source of “the misbehavior characterizing these programs.”

Whatever Penn State does, “it has to be tangible and has to be very visible,” said Rod Smith, director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

A former member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Infractions Appeals Committee, Smith said there’s no precedent he knows of that suggests whether the NCAA might take action against Penn State – this instance seems to occupy a gray area in the association’s jurisdiction because it appears that no players were involved in the incidents and subsequent cover-up. (An article on Inside Higher Ed in November explored the likelihood of NCAA action in depth.) Many have called on the NCAA to issue the “death penalty,” a forfeiture of competition for at least one season. The NCAA has slapped the penalty on only a handful of colleges, most famously in 1987, when Southern Methodist University football was taken off the field for a year because officials were paying recruits to play. After self-imposing a second-year ban, SMU's program took decades to fully recover.

While the NCAA has said it’s waiting for Penn State’s response to the report before deciding whether to act, Smith said the association could do so because the university acted deliberately to give itself a competitive advantage. (As the independent report by Louis Freeh notes, it appears that officials acted – or rather, failed to act – out of a desire to avoid bad publicity.) The Big Ten conference could punish the university as well, Smith said, but that would be complicated and unlikely because of the scheduling and contractual issues it would cause for the conference’s other members.

“[Penn State] has to establish that they have some penalty that will be sufficiently harsh, that will make this kind of occurrence unlikely in the future. The problem with that is, that means they have to do something that undercuts the power of the football program,” Smith said. “If there was ever a case for the death penalty, this might be it.”

Did the 'Grand Experiment' Fail?

There’s no greater symbol of the football program’s power than Joseph Vincent Paterno, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history and conductor of Penn State’s “Grand Experiment,” an athletics philosophy that praised academic success and good character as much as it did victories on the field. Paterno, who died in January, was also a philanthropist – he funded a campus library wing that now bears his name.

“This is why many organizations will not name a building or put up a statue to someone who’s living, because it’s actually pretty important when you name a building to vet the candidate whose name is going up there,” said Thomas D. Russell, a law professor at the University of Denver. “It’s one of the reasons you wait.”

After Russell’s research unearthed the fact that the namesake of a building at the University of Texas at Austin, where he used to teach, was a Ku Klux Klan organizer in Florida, the university changed the name. But Penn State’s dilemma is a bit different, he said: the Klan organizer’s misbehavior was so criminal that he obviously didn’t merit the honor. Paterno was certainly a player in the scandal, but not exactly a perpetrator.

“I think that this scandal is a good opportunity for American universities to look within, and think about to what extent have they abandoned the university mission in order to support athletics,” Russell said. “Maybe that particular statue is going to be a good reminder, to not just Penn State but other universities, that maybe we need to refocus our ideals.”

But Russell doesn’t think the statue should be removed yet -- though not because, as Paterno’s dwindling supporters say, the university should still honor the good things he did.

“The university, having failed in its responsibilities, now has a responsibility to repair the harm by having a big and unpleasant conversation,” he continued. “Penn State engaged in the cover-up. So in that way this statue is a piece of evidence -- it’s dirty linen that should remain at least for as long as it takes for Penn State to discuss the harm and try to provide a remedy for the harm.” 

However Penn State proceeds, it’s clear that expectations are high – and renovating the locker rooms and showers where Sandusky victimized children, which the university plans to do, probably won’t be enough to placate its critics. But Penn State and others can also come out of this better than they were when they went into it.

“I have also characterized this as an opportunity, since such forceful action could demonstrate to governing boards across the nation that they simply must wrestle control back from the coaches and athletic directors who have pulled these programs away from the control and core values of the university and embraced a commercial culture largely for personal gain,” Duderstadt said.

“A $50 million football engine doesn’t trump child rape. And I would want the Penn State brand to stand for the engagement of those conversations nationally and internationally,” Lebowitz, of Northeastern, said. “The one silver lining of this is they now have the world spotlight on them to lead that conversation.”


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