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July 23, 2012
In picking up the pieces of Joe Paterno's football program, Penn State should embark on a new Grand Experiment
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July 23, 2012


In picking up the pieces of Joe Paterno's football program, Penn State should embark on a new Grand Experiment

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Penn State plans to renovate the showers at the Lasch Football Building, the same showers where former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted children. But even if Penn State rebuilds its entire football facility, the school must still figure out what to do with the team inside it.

For decades Penn State football fans claimed their program was different, better and purer than others—a model for all college sports. But former FBI director Louis Freeh's 267-page report blew a hole through that claim last Thursday. It is withering, thorough, believable: When Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno, school president Graham Spanier and others were told that Sandusky was molesting children, they all felt bad. For Sandusky.

They all then proceeded to actively cover for Sandusky, enabling him to continue to assault children for years. Their cover-up is even harder to understand than his crimes. Sandusky is a sick, deranged man. Paterno, Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz were all supposed to be intelligent, reasonable people in positions of authority who should have known better. But the aura of the football program fogged everything else in State College, Pa., and they allowed a pedophile to roam through their community in order to spare it, and themselves, embarrassment.

In the aftermath of the Sandusky disclosures and the release of Freeh's report, most of the suggestions for Penn State's future have been punitive: banning the team from competition for a year, applying NCAA sanctions, removing the Paterno statue from outside Beaver Stadium. But does Penn State need more punishment? Most of the scandal's principal figures are either in jail, facing prosecution or, in Paterno's case, dead. The university is draped in shame. Civil suits are surely coming (three have already been filed) and will cost the school millions.

The NCAA has a right to investigate Penn State, and violations should result in penalties. But canceling the season would mostly hurt the current players, who had nothing to do with the scandal, and it would punish Penn State's opponents, who would lose a game on the schedule, and it would throw the Big Ten into scheduling chaos, and ... wait, wait, wait. This was the problem in the first place. We're making football out to be far more important than it is.

Why not instead have Penn Staters create the program they always claimed to have?

Football was supposed to enhance the academic experience at Penn State as part of Paterno's Grand Experiment. The school can stop selling the idea and implement it. Use football for a more concrete cause: Profits from the coming season could be diverted to create a facility to study and destigmatize child sex abuse. There's a student-run organization already in place, the One Heart campaign (SI, July 2). Penn State could establish itself as a leading research institution for studying and preventing child abuse and embrace the very problem that brought it down.

And as for the football team, here is a revolutionary thought: View it like ... a football team. Stop looking at the school exclusively through a face mask. Enjoy the tailgates and the fight song, but remove the statue of Paterno. Don't brag about holding players to a higher standard, administered by the football coach; hold them to the same standard as other students. Treat new coach Bill O'Brien like an employee instead of a god. What a grand experiment that would be.

Penn State had a broken culture, but fans around the country who say, "It could never happen at my school," should not be so sure. Cover-ups and skewed priorities are common throughout major-college sports.

Delete the disgraceful details of the Sandusky scandal and the story suddenly sounds familiar. A (big-name coach) wanted to protect his program from scrutiny, and the university (president/chancellor) and (other administrators) refused to stand up to (that big-name coach) because (fans) believed (their program) was morally superior to (your program).

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