The report by former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh on the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State has fully exposed how the cult of Joe Paterno led to a cover-up of horrendous crimes.
After years of building up Paterno's reputation as an upstanding football coach, Penn State officials feared negative publicity. And so they did nothing even as one of Paterno's lieutenants, Jerry Sandusky, sexually attacked young boys over several years.
The most stunning parts of Freeh's report involve Penn State's handling of a 1998 university Police Department investigation into allegations against Sandusky. Although Paterno and his supporters claimed the beloved coach had no knowledge of the police investigation, Freeh's report shows he not only knew about it, but closely monitored it. Then in 2001, Paterno persuaded university officials not to report Sandusky to authorities after the assistant coach had violently assaulted another boy in the football showers.
University officials knew they were exposing themselves to liability by not acting, but showed little sign of caring for Sandusky's victims, past, present or future. The report suggests that "protecting the brand" was the top priority. "The only downside for us is if the message isn't 'heard' and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it," lamented Graham B. Spanier, the former president of Penn State, in 2001.
Penn State supporters certainly have some soul searching to do. After the Sandusky scandal broke late last year, many of them condemned Sandusky yet still rallied behind Paterno. "It was Paterno's values of honor, humility and teamwork that shaped Penn State's football culture and the university as a whole," wrote one Penn State alumna in response to a Bee editorial critical of the university's football-crazed culture.
Even into this year, Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, was attacking Penn State trustees who had fired Paterno before the coach passed away in January. Nike announced Thursday that the child care center at its corporate headquarters would no longer be named after Paterno, and Knight issued a pathetic statement saying "it appears Joe made some missteps."
Penn State will undoubtedly pay a steep penalty for the actions and inactions of its former leaders, including penalties imposed under the Cleary Act. That 1999 law requires colleges to compile and report certain crime statistics, including sexual offenses.
Yet no one should assume that Penn State is an outlier in fostering a culture that allowed rapes to go unreported. This kind of cover-up could happen in any university, business or institution where a charismatic leader has become the stuff of legend, making every other consideration including protecting kids secondary.
California lawmakers have responded with a flurry of bills to prevent another Penn State tragedy. One of these, by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would expand the list of those required to report suspicions of child abuse to include any athletic coach, athletic administrator, or athletic director employed by any K-12 public or private school.
Such legislation is appropriate, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that stronger laws will prevent another Sandusky from carrying out his evil. Young people will go unprotected whenever those at the top abandon any shred of ethical decency and choose to protect their "brands" over the most vulnerable.