That seemed to be the idea. The NCAA's extraordinary decision to indict a place and a mind-set—after doing no investigating of its own—was startling, but considering the heinous acts involved, the white-hot media coverage and recent scandals at USC, Miami and Ohio State, the organization's panicky speed and severity were understandable. Indeed, few outside of Happy Valley would argue that the sanctions weren't just. Freeh's description of Penn State janitors fearful of reporting Sandusky's sexual assault of a boy in 2000 because "they were afraid to take on the football program" was appalling, and his conclusion set the tone. "If that's the culture on the bottom?" Freeh said at his press conference. "God help the culture at the top."
Yet there's something disturbing, maybe even dangerous, about such a blanket condemnation. Freeh's concept of "culture" had been mostly confined to the school's administrative and athletic hierarchy, starting with a Board of Trustees that allowed a "football first" atmosphere. But the NCAA, in its consent decree, took that a step further: "It was," the decree stated, "the fear of or deference to the omnipotent football program that enabled a sexual predator to attract and abuse his victims. Indeed, the reverence for Penn State football permeated every level of the university community."
That Paterno was revered in some quarters is no exaggeration. But these days many people—even those who admit that Paterno's handling of Sandusky was suspect—are hanging up signs that say THANK YOU JOE PA and PROUD SUPPORTER OF PENN STATE FOOTBALL. It's not all blind loyalty. It's self-defense. That's because the NCAA, as an August protest statement signed by 30 past chairs of the university's Faculty Senate put it, has "used its assertion of collective guilt" to bash the entire Penn State "community," a term that applies to the school's more than 600,000 alumni and the program's fans nationwide, not to mention every professor, student or administrator who never took in a game.
All this despite the fact that Freeh had no subpoena power, that he never interviewed Paterno and that Schultz and Curley have yet to be found guilty of anything. The e-mail trail that Freeh laid out, especially regarding the handling in 2001 of graduate assistant Mike McQueary's report of Sandusky's rape of a boy, is damning in the extreme. If a cover-up is proved in court, say many in the Penn State community, every denouncing howl will be justified. "But that hasn't been determined yet," longtime Penn State volleyball coach Russ Rose said on Oct. 8, the day before Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. "The only one who'd gone on trial has been found guilty by a jury of his peers."
Still, the idea of broad complicity in the Penn State scandal is oddly persuasive. In October, Kretchmar, who served as the school's Faculty Athletics Representative from 2000 to '10, publicly called the NCAA's tarring of Penn State's culture "as inappropriate and offensive as it is wrong," yet he began his statement by admitting, "there is no question that we are culpable" for not stopping Sandusky.
You can't have it both ways, but Kretchmar is honest enough to admit he's torn. Paterno's "grand experiment" of melding athletics and academics had shaped Penn State's identity since the 1960s; the received wisdom is that the school leveraged football success to become a premier university. "Each school has a story they like to tell about themselves, and all of them are positive," Kretchmar said. "Joe was our history."
But plenty of entities beyond State College bought into that story: the Big Ten Conference, which boasted about Penn State football's high graduation rate; the media, which was happy to cover a "clean" program as an alternative to all the dirty ones; and defenders of amateur sports, not to mention the NCAA itself. In 2004, NCAA president Myles Brand visited State College and declared it "the poster child for doing it right in college sports." His successor, Mark Emmert, said in 2010 that Paterno was "the definitive role model of what it means to be a college coach."
Sandusky's was the crime in the place that no one thought possible. If that calls for indicting a culture, perhaps it's time we went all the way.
Russ Rose can't help it. He has been at Penn State 33 years and is arguably the nation's best women's volleyball coach; his five-time national champs are again ranked No. 1. He's one of the few head coaches at a Division 1-A school to still teach a class (Principles and Ethics of Coaching) and the only one in State College to do so. Yet when strangers say the Sandusky affair proved there was a collective moral breakdown and he replies, "That isn't the Penn State I know," they don't really listen. They'll ask if he ever suspected Sandusky or if he posed for a photo with the pedophile, and he'll snap. "You're a North Carolina grad," he said after a half hour of such questions from this reporter. "Did you take those classes when you were there? The ones that didn't exist?"
It's a nasty swipe, and more than apt. After all, North Carolina was, like Penn State, a school with overweening pride in its own rectitude. Yet since 2010 a pattern of academic irregularities and outright fraud—some 54 classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department, more than half of whose students were athletes, were found to entail little or no instruction—has claimed the jobs of the football coach and the athletic director, and helped cause the departure of Chancellor Holden Thorp. I graduated long before; Rose's point is that individuals—not "a community," past and present—should be held to account.