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Mark Bennett Opinion

July 15, 2012

MARK BENNETT: In wake of the scandal, Penn State has a chance to show what it stands for

TERRE HAUTE — Anyone who’s been around competitive sports awhile has seen the “us-against-the-world” motivational strategy.

It’s popular because it’s effective. Coaches convince the athletes that “nobody respects us” — “nobody” includes opponents, students at the rival schools, classmates, media, neighbors, and the general public. It might be true, it might be exaggerated, but either way the logic creates an atmosphere of adversity. Team members start analyzing the reasons others underestimate them, and gain determination to clear those obstacles. And if they succeed, nearly every postgame celebration features a jubilant point guard or outside linebacker uttering the line, “We overcame so much adversity.”

As inspiring as those rags-to-riches stories of uphill battles may be, the rockier road may actually await those programs and teams that have already reached an elite plateau and claimed a residence there.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity,” Abraham Lincoln once said, “but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Penn State University football occupied a position of power in the big-time college sports world. The program developed a reputation for “success with honor,” touting its ability to field players who could achieve academically while also sprinting a 40 in 4.3 seconds, sacking opposing quarterbacks, and gaining 14 yards on a run off-tackle. The Nittany Lions’ venerable coach, Joe Paterno, became a living legend for crafting and overseeing this system, serving longer and winning more games than anybody else. Legions of students, alums, fans and donors followed loyally for decades, packed Beaver Stadium on autumn Saturdays, bought sweatshirts and ballcaps, tailgated, contributed, and built Penn State football into a multi-million-dollar entity.

Penn State was no underdog, yearning for recognition. Penn State had its respect. Paterno had his own statue. The program had power.

And the school ultimately abused that power, in a most terrible way. That is the sad, ugly truth verified by Thursday’s release of the report from an eight-month investigation of years of child sexual abuse by Paterno’s once-top-assistant, Jerry Sandusky.

True character by the university’s leaders crumbled when the football program’s power was threatened. Instead of serving as a poster child for the best that major-college sports has to offer, Penn State now instead stands as a textbook example of morals being abandoned to preserve status and money. Winning, and all of its perks, mattered more than profoundly damaged lives.

Pathetic — a word too loosely used in the sports vernacular — is too inadequate to describe the chilling lack of character exhibited in a place ironically known as Happy Valley. Former FBI director Louis Freeh led the investigation, funded by the university, and concluded through hundreds of interviews and inspections of emails that Paterno, university president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and vice president Gary Schultz covered up Sandusky’s criminal behavior and maintained a code of silence to preserve the reputation and status enjoyed by their renowned football program.

Instead, they accomplished the exact opposite, while enabling the former assistant coach to abuse more victims for more years.

In comments at a news conference, Freeh called the Penn State officials’ inaction “callous and shocking.”

“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized,” Freeh said in his report. They chose to protect their football program instead, according to the Freeh report.

The fallout has hit with force. The 68-year-old Sandusky, convicted last month on 45 counts of abusing young boys, will likely and rightly spend the rest of his life in prison. Paterno was fired in November and died two months later of lung cancer at age 85. His statue still stands, but his legacy — built on victories, solid graduation rates and loyalty — is tarnished by this dark revelation. Curley and Schultz face charges of perjury and failure to report abuse. Spanier was ousted as president. And the football program they guarded from scrutiny? The NCAA is awaiting answers from the university before considering sanctions against Penn State, including the program ending “death penalty,” imposed only once before.

The saga can be viewed three ways — as a single situation at one misguided institution; as a signal that corruption is possible and potentially pervasive in any major-college sports program; or as a reminder that a reverence for money, influence and stature can corrode the basic sense of decency in people anywhere in 21st-century American culture. Reality lies in the latter two.

That quote from Lincoln stands tall right now. Penn State’s new leaders should do what its former leaders fought so obsessively to prevent; they should drop the football program indefinitely while doing whatever possible to make amends to the victims. By showing a genuine commitment to priorities and principles, that school then would develop a truer power.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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