The Stench From Penn State Permeates Big-Time College Sports

Carolyn Kaster, AP Images

The behavior of Penn State's leaders is not just a scandal. It's a deal-breaker.
November 08, 2011

The lead story on ESPN's SportsCenter crawl Sunday morning highlighted Louisiana State's narrow win over Alabama in a rare No. 1-vs.-No. 2 football showdown. It mentioned that Oklahoma had defeated Texas A&M but had lost the nation's top receiver to a ligament tear, and it noted that the NBA lockout was in its 129th day.

Much like fumbling a snap, the "worldwide leader in sports" had dropped the ball.

The biggest story in college football was basically swept under the rug, because Saturday's lights had to be shone elsewhere. An awful scandal was largely ignored that day because the moneymaking machine that depends on young men smashing into one another on grass was running at full steam.

Swept under the rug. Ignored.

 Those are phrases you are hearing from the talking heads on TV, reading in newspapers and magazines, to describe what adults in power did at Pennsylvania State University.

And this is why we have a problem much bigger than the allegation that a highly respected and successful football coach raped a child in Penn State's locker room.

On Saturday, a grand-jury report was brought to the nation's attention by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Yahoo Sports, and hundreds of local news media.

The report gave graphic accounts of sexual abuse allegedly committed by Jerry Sandusky, Penn State's longtime defensive coordinator who was at one time reportedly in line to be Joe Paterno's successor as head football coach. It described charges filed against Timothy M. Curley, Penn State's athletic director, and Gary Schultz, interim senior vice president for finance and business, for perjury and failure to report to authorities what they knew of the allegations, as required by state law.

And neither ESPN nor CBS—which aired Saturday's big showdown—made much of it that day.

There are three major problems here:

  • Over a course of 15 years, Sandusky, now 67, is alleged to have sexually abused eight boys. He used his position at Penn State to leverage relationships and to open a charity organization, the Second Mile, to assist boys from underprivileged backgrounds.
  • At least four people at Penn State—Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and the graduate assistant who reported seeing Sandusky raping a young boy—knew of the incident that reportedly occurred in the showers of the Penn State football locker room in 2002. None of those four people called the police. None attempted to identify the boy, who appeared to be about 10. Instead they protected Sandusky, who was simply made to turn in his locker-room keys.
  • On Saturday, November 5, ESPN and CBS protected college football and simply led its fans to good ol' action on the field and away from that nasty scandal stuff.

This is not just a scandal. It's a deal-breaker. This is not just about allegations of a man raping little boys; it's about a nation that has deeply troubling priorities. This is not about missing a story; it's about entertainment trumping the truth.

And it is all about money.

Sandusky faces 40 charges stemming from the sexual abuse of eight boys. Those are the eight who have come forward or whose alleged abuse was described by witnesses. Sandusky had access to the boys, who came from troubled or impoverished backgrounds, through his organization. He was supposed to help them. Instead he appears to have betrayed them in a way that is difficult to even talk about.

But Penn State—proud of being one of the very few big-time college athletic programs without major NCAA violations—has an ugly history of not talking about disturbing situations.

In 2007, Penn State's women's basketball coach, Rene Portland, resigned amid a scandal and discrimination lawsuit. Portland, a two-time national coach of the year and only the ninth coach to win more than 600 games, had allegedly created a hostile environment toward lesbian players or players she perceived to be lesbian. Complaints had been levied, but action was not taken, even after the university instituted a nondiscrimination policy, in 1991.

The environment came to light after Jennifer Harris, who had been kicked off the team, filed a federal lawsuit. Penn State conducted an internal review and found that the coach had created a "hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment" on the basis of Harris's perceived sexual orientation. Portland was fined $10,000 and required to attend diversity-training sessions.

A documentary, Training Rules, describes the environment through the words of Penn State players during Portland's 27-year reign. While not subjected to the horrific sexual abuse that the little boys are alleged to have endured, those young women were subjected to mental abuse that the administration long swept under the rug. Ignored.

Why? Maybe because it was uncomfortable to talk about. Or maybe because Portland was so damn successful.

Why wouldn't Paterno and Curley have called the authorities? Because it was uncomfortable? Because Sandusky was so successful? Or because it would tarnish a cash -cow of a brand: Penn State football? 

 This brings us to Problem No. 3: Why wouldn't those major news media give the audience the news on a timely basis?

Because, deep down, fans don't want to be uncomfortable. Because fans want to believe in success. Because fans pay.

Fans pour into stadiums despite scandals. Fans want to believe that Jim Tressel, the disgraced former football coach at Ohio State, is still a "good man." Fans force athletic directors to fire coaches who go 8-4 for too many years.

But what do fans do with the news from University Park, Pa.?

This isn't tattoos for jerseys. This isn't Camaros for commitments. Right?

No, it is not.

But it is the next step in an environment that is corrupt and wholly hypocritical.

It is the next step for an entity that is based on the lie of amateurism.

It is the next evolution in an arena that slaps the wrists of rule-breaking players and coaches, that rewards coaches and administrators with millions of dollars while the rest of the state's educational system crumbles, that uses catchy slogans to mask racism and sexism.

And we are all complicit. We watch. We attend. We cheer. We eat from ESPN's spoon. We sweep under the rug. We ignore.

 I am doubly complicit, as both a former fan and a former sportswriter.

No more.

A coach is reported to have raped a young boy in the showers of the Penn State football locker room, and no one called the police.

What else do we need to hear before we change?

Molly Yanity is a graduate student and instructor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.