The Penn State Scandal in a Nebraska Context
With the release of the Freeh report on their the independent investigation in to the Penn State scandal, the biggest story (maybe the only story) in sports today are the damning findings and recommendations concerning Joe Paterno and the highest ranking Penn State officials. When I'm forced to try and get my head around the impact of these kinds of atrocities, I tend to ask... "What if this happened at Nebraska?" Maybe you do that too. So, to put yourself in the shoes of a PSU fan today, I ask you to consider the more tarnished portions of our icon's record.
First, spend some time reading the findings of the Freeh report. I defy you not to feel sick when you are finished. The investigation appears very thorough and independent. The findings are put as plainly as possible, considering the horrible subject matter.
One of the most damaging portions of the report, in my opinion, is as follows:
"Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University - President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President - Finance and Business, Gary C Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley, and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky's activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities. They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky's victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being, especially by not attempting to determine the identity of the child who Sandusky assaulted in the Lasch Building in 2001. Further, they exposed this child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky, who was the only one who knew the child's identity, of what McQueary saw in the shower on the night of February 9, 2001."
There you have it. They knew. They willingly chose not to act. They put kids in harms way and covered up child sexual assault for decades. These aren't just four regular University employees. These men are part of the senior leadership and, in Paterno's case, an icon. Let that sink in.
So, how do we assess the situation and damage? What if this were Nebraska? How would you react as a fan? As a litmus test, consider the worst part of Osborne's legacy as a coach. You know what is coming, right? Lawrence Phillips.
Whenever any opposing fan wants to disparage NU, they just say the name Lawrence Phillips. Phillips was a great football player and a troubled human being. He beat a woman. That's a terrible crime. For his actions, he was put through the legal system, and suspended for much of the 1995 season. Tom Osborne's re-instatement of Phillips once he completed the legal process was, to put it lightly, unpopular. I was at the stadium the day Phillips returned to action. Some fans booed. Others refused to go to that game or future games.
While Osborne would argue that Phillips had paid a penalty for his crime and that being on the team was in his best interests from a behavioral and psychological standpoint, there was no un-ringing that bell. Some now saw Osborne as a win at-all-cost coach. True or not, unfair or not, Osborne would have to live with the outcome of his choices and the perception of choices.
So, now put the worst moment in Osborne's tenure side by side with the current PSU scandal. It's obvious that what happened in Happy Valley appears terribly - exponentially - worse.
Consider the crimes and duration. All abuse is terrible. The type or gender should not be subject to a qualitative debate. But, when you consider how long and how entrenched the Sandusky crimes are - the number of victims, the amount of "grooming" that went on, the children being intimately around the PSU program - it makes the Phillips case look small. One was isolated. The other was systematic.
Consider the actions taken. Phillips was arrested. He was suspended. He was processed. In Penn State's case, none of that happened. Things were hushed at Penn State. In the interest of protecting a sport - football - Paterno and PSU officials covered up horrible crimes.
Consider the timing. The Phillips situation was unique as it coincided with an unprecedented three year run of success for the Huskers. That made it even more high profile. The Penn State situation spans decades. Sandusky's tenure there covered decades, dozens (even hundreds) of games, and two national titles.
Consider the implications. Osborne was viewed as a coach seeking to win games and get his best player back on the field. As things played out, it was obvious that NU squad may not have even needed Phillips to win in 1995. At Penn State, it was clearly about protecting football; not just one season but the entire program.
The self-serving letter issued by the Paterno family yesterday offers the argument that Sandusky's actions somehow don't tarnish or impugn the quality of the football team. That's ridiculous. Of course it impacts the football team. The criminal - the predator - was a valued and long-term coach. And, the people covering up the crimes were coaches and athletic officials. This might not involve blocking and tackling, but it has everything to do with football. Was Sandusky a part of the team? Yes. Did he help them win games? Yes. Was he kept on the team? Yes. Case closed.
Consider the long-term damage. In Nebraska, the Phillips situation is still a hot button issue today, more than 15 years later. I know some of you are secretly seething because I brought it up. And, I know I'm tired of hearing about it from opposing fans. The historical significance and angst caused by the Phillips case will be a drop in the bucket compared to the long term impact this scandal will have at PSU. This can become a multi-generational topic. It's now fair to question everything we knew or thought about Joe Paterno's legacy.
During the Phillips mess, I remember wearing Nebraska gear while traveling out of state. I heard some comments about it from NU detractors. I thought what Phillips did was wrong, and I was embarrassed. I didn't defend Osborne's choice.
So, in light of today's report, consider this - is "We Are...Penn State!" still really a rallying cry?