In the fall of 2000, a janitor witnessed former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky performing oral sex on a young boy in a locker room on campus. Later that day, another janitor saw Sandusky showering with a boy who appeared to be 12 years old.
The two staff members conferred with one another, but told nobody else.
“What did they do? They said, ‘We can’t report this, because we’ll get fired,’ ” Louis Freeh, a former FBI director and federal judge, said Thursday in a press conference following the release of his report  on the scandal that irrevocably changed the way the world views Penn State. “They were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it; It’s like going against the president of the United States.”
“If that’s the culture on the bottom,” Freeh continued, “God help the culture on the top.”
By deliberately concealing information and failing to take any action to protect the children who Sandusky repeatedly victimized, the report says, administrators enabled him to continue raping young boys in campus facilities and elsewhere for 14 years.
The investigators who reached that conclusion in the independent report commissioned by the university’s board of trustees and released Thursday to the public found fault in the action and inaction of a cadre of individuals, from the president to police to the trustees themselves. But it also identified a far less tangible culprit, one that explains the janitors’ fears and one that can’t be addressed with just a firing or a quick policy fix: the impenetrable culture of intercollegiate athletics at Penn State. (Read more on the report's findings here .)
“For the past several decades, the university’s athletic department was permitted to become a closed community. There was little personnel turnover or hiring from outside the university and strong internal loyalty,” the report says. “The athletic department was perceived by many in the Penn State community as ‘an island,’ where staff members lived by their own rules.” Sports programs and football in particular skipped out on sexual abuse awareness and summer camp procedures training, the report notes, and opted out of most of the Clery Act, the federal law that requires the university to report campus crime statistics.
“Certain aspects of the community culture are laudable, such as its collegiality, high standards of educational excellence and research, and respect for the environment,” the report reads. “However, there is an over-emphasis on ‘The Penn State Way’ as an approach to decision-making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives, and an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the university’s reputation as a progressive institution.”
Distinctive But Not Unique
The case at Penn State was horrific and unprecedented, to be sure. But in this golden age of college athletics that’s churning out more money, scandals, and calls for reform than ever before, the culture that allowed it is far from unique.
The report calls the Penn State athletics culture “one of reverence,” and that people all but worshipped the football team was certainly no secret. But the implosion there was all the more shocking because the university’s sports program has long been held up as a bastion of respectable and ethical intercollegiate athletics. Nobody represented this image more than former head coach Joe Paterno, who spoke often about the importance of academics and making players clean the stadium when they misbehaved. Seriously faulted in the report -- which notes that University President Graham Spanier, Senior Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley flip-flopped on their decision to report Sandusky after a meeting with the head coach -- Paterno died in January two months after the story broke.
Yet the culture described in the report is “quite unremarkable in that it’s so ordinary,” said Charles P. Clotfelter, a professor of economics and law at Duke University. “What is ordinary was not the cause of this tragedy, but it certainly was a contributing factor. A lot of us don’t pay attention when we’re crossing the street, but that doesn’t mean that we’re always going to have an accident,” Clotfelter said. “It could be that the more significant message for higher education is, there’s this reality that we don’t talk about.”
Athletics is arguably a core function at all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision colleges, Clotfelter said. But how many of them mention athletics in their mission statements? (Very few.)
“The fact that this is important: that’s not top-down, that is everybody. It’s grassroots. But most significant for the institution, it permeates the trustees,” Clotfelter said. “My plea in my book  is: universities, just be more candid about what’s going on…. All this devotion to sports is not all bad, but let’s take it out and talk about it.”
But the power and money that’s been vested in big-time sports can also act as a deterrent for someone – even a university president – to ask the serious questions or confront a head coach.
“They know that these folks have enormous power, and they can rally the power elite in that community or that state to send them packing,” said Robert Benford, chair of the sociology department at the University of South Florida. “At the end of the day, athletics and academics are oil and water. They just don’t go together. And we are constantly running into these kinds of issues. Few people have, I think, the courage or the power to try to take it on.”
Whether administrators and trustees are hoping for more money, applicants or publicity in allowing athletic departments to run wild, there seems to be some naiveté when it comes to considering potential damage, said Benford, a self-described sports fan who has studied sociology and sport and also served on the intercollegiate athletics committee at another Big Ten powerhouse, the University of Nebraska. Benford noted in particular Spanier’s attempts to minimize the events unfolding at Penn State, right up until the trustees fired him.
“I do wonder if folks realize what a serious impact it can have,” Benford said. “Because it’s kind of a double-edged sword. You’re trading on the athletic power and success of your athletic teams for visibility and status and money and so forth, but at the same time that means that spotlight is going to be just as intense on any sort of misstep.”
Being allowed to operate autonomously (often in physical campus location as well as governance) bestows upon athletes and department officials a sense of privilege and entitlement that allows this culture to thrive, Benford said. So, a re-integration of athletics into the rest of campus and academe would be the start of a solution -- but given the power of big-time sports, don’t look for that to happen any time soon.
“The lesson should not just be about, let’s find the individual uniqueness of Penn State that explains why this happened, but to try to find the more systemic, cultural and structural forces at work here that might lead this to happen at virtually any major university in the country,” Benford said. “I just think we’ve lost perspective in this.”
The hierarchical structure of athletics -- which typically features three untouchable white men at the top: the athletics director, football coach and basketball coach – is “a recipe for disaster,” said Orin Starn, chair and professor of cultural anthropology at Duke.
“The story of football at Penn State is emblematic of the story of big-time sports at most other universities that are in Division I in the sense that the athletics department and the rest of the university are really parallel universities -- and there’s very little connection, oversight, mutual understanding,” Starn said. Comparing the structure of athletics programs to the Catholic Church, he added, “They’re certainly systems where once abuse happens, because they’re so hierarchical and because such fealty is owed to the head coach, that they very quickly get into cover-up and not owning up, a lack of transparency.”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law and senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, points to the economic model of big-time college sports, the underlying philosophy of which is essentially that you spend money (on recruiting, facilities, coaches, etc.), to win games, to make money (from championship games, television contracts, licensing deals, etc.).
“If you don’t win, you are not economically viable,” Hogshead-Makar said, adding that even still, only 22 college athletics programs are in the black. “When you have to protect that donor base, it means you have to protect the mystique – you have to protect the chest-thumping and testosterone, and that’s exactly when things go awry, when that starts eroding the ethics of an institution.”
That hypermasculinity embedded in the athletic culture can have catastrophic consequences. In a letter to the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights requesting a review into whether Penn State complied with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in its handling of these allegations and others that involved athletes, the Foundation and its co-authors note that despite composing only 3.3 percent of the student population, athletes account for 19 percent of reported sexual assault perpetrators.
Hogshead-Makar believes the Freeh report establishes Penn State’s liability under Title IX, because it suggests officials “knew about the harassment and remained deliberately indifferent to it.” Further, the limited action they did take – asking Sandusky not to bring his “guests” into the locker rooms -- was designed not to halt the harassment, but to make sure it didn’t happen on campus.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has not taken any action against the university. Thursday on Twitter, many were calling on the body to issue the “death penalty,” the extremely seldom-used sanction that bans a university from competing in a sport for at least one year.
But those critics may be in the minority.
“Americans may ‘cluck cluck,' ” Starn said, “but they’re still going to tune into the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl to watch Penn State play.”