Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Search for Justice at Penn State

By now the horrific details are visible in the light of day.

Jerry Sandusky, Assistant Coach for the Nittany Lions of Penn State University and anointed successor to sainted head coach Joe Paterno, spent the last fifteen years systematically raping young boys. Coach Paterno, University President Graham Spanier and several other administrative officials knew of the allegations yet failed to report them.

Sandusky’s actions first came to light through a grand jury investigation last November. Since then the situation has spun out of control, at least for the University. Shortly after the indictments were handed down, Coach Paterno was fired. He died two months later.

Sandusky’s trial concluded in June with convictions on 45 of the 48 charges.

The University’s Board of Trustees then hired an independent law firm to conduct their own investigation and when its report became public the results were worse than anyone thought. The conclusion was especially incriminating:

“Taking into account the available witness statements and evidence, the Special Investigative Counsel finds that it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the University — Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley — repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from authorities, the University's Board of Trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large.”

There was more. Earlier this week the NCAA, which oversees all of college athletics, announced their own response to the scandal. If possible, it went even further than the legal system. In fact, the various sanctions, penalties and judgments the NCAA imposed on Penn State may result in the death of the University’s football program altogether. The details are unprecedented:
·         A $60 million fine on the University, equivalent to one year’s proceeds from the football program. The proceeds will be used to fund an endowment for the victims of child abuse.
·         A 4-year ban on post season play for the football team.
·         Football scholarships reduced from 25 to 15 per year for four years.
·         All wins from the football team to be vacated from 1998 to 2011, an act that will remove Joe Paterno from the position of holding most wins in NCAA history.
·         The football program to serve a 5-year probation.
·         The NCAA will reserve the right to investigate and impose sanctions on any other individuals they find in the program who may have participated in the cover-up.

NCAA President Mark Emmert clearly felt the scope of Sandusky’s crimes and the criminal neglect the University’s administration apparently practiced left him no choice.

"No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflicted by Jerry Sandusky on his victims. However, we can make clear that the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in collegiate athletics."

Like Sandusky’s victims and their families, the betrayed supporters of Penn State football, the deceived Board of Trustees at Penn State, the judicial system itself and the nation as whole watching this sordid affair unfold like a slow-motion train wreck, Mark Emmert is seeking justice.

An exceptionally odd feature of the NCAA’s sanctions is that the organization really doesn’t have the authority to do what it’s done. It exists to monitor compliance with standards that ensure fair competition in college athletics. Things like recruiting, scheduling, academic standards and completion rules. The organization’s mission doesn’t include monitoring the kind of moral and legal morass that Penn State is stuck in.

In fact, Penn State isn’t accused of any of the rules infractions that the NCAA’s charter deals with. But in this case, the organization was compelled to step outside its corporate and legal boundaries and address a situation that threatened the credibility of college athletics as a whole. The NCAA had to act with a higher purpose. It had to act justly.

What happened at Penn State—regardless of legal wrangling and the celebrity culture surrounding Joe Paterno—was fundamentally unjust. The weak were preyed upon by the strong and the institution that should have protected the victims sold them out for the sake of football dollars. Anyone with any conscience at all recoils from it all and says to themselves if not to anyone else, Where’s the justice in this?

The scales have to balance, somehow and somewhere. The NCAA did their part.

And what about Penn State University? To their credit, they’ve agreed to the sanctions. They haven’t gone to court to challenge them, as they could. Instead, the school’s present leadership knows that the court of public opinion demands they accept their punishment. Hopefully, they also realize a higher court requires satisfaction as well.

Toward the end of his novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky gives some hope to the long-suffering Penn State fans, students and alumni. They can’t go around their problem; indeed, the only way out is through. But there’s hope on the other side:  

"You ought to thank God, perhaps. How do you know? Perhaps God is saving you for something. But keep a good heart and have less fear! Are you afraid of the great expiation before you? No, it would be shameful to be afraid of it. Since you have taken such a step, you must harden your heart. There is justice in it. You must fulfill the demands of justice. I know that you don’t believe it, but indeed, life will bring you through. You will live it down in time. What you need now is fresh air, fresh air, fresh air!"

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