Homecoming isn't meant to be about rage. Yet there, outside Beaver Stadium, was a man wearing a WE ARE ... PISSED OFF T-shirt and striding past a sign that read WE INTEND TO VOTE OUT THE PENN STATE BOARD OF TRUSTEES. Homecoming isn't meant to be about mourning, but there was a woman on her knees in the grass where the coach's statue once stood, where 20 floral bouquets would be placed before day's end, stabbing two more photo-collage posters of Joe Pa into the earth. Homecoming isn't meant to be about loss, but what else would you call the mood in State College, Pa., for the first such weekend since Jerry Sandusky and his abettors dragged the school into reputation hell?
This is an article from the Nov. 5, 2012 issue
"Less folks in the stands, less folks in the parking lots, less folks in town," said Mark Blair, class of 1994, an agent for the U.S. Treasury Department. "I think the alumni have stayed away." It was Oct. 6. Blair was sitting in the All-American Rathskeller, a college dive on South Pugh Street. The game had started in a gray chill, Penn State was losing to Northwestern by 11 in the third quarter, and Blair and his wife had the back room nearly to themselves. The "pandemonium" he said he felt at the same time last year, that Happy Valley vibe of a good place frozen in time, was gone.
"That has definitely changed," Blair said. "You're not down the rabbit hole anymore. It's more adult. It used to be that you could come back to State College and you were 20 years old again. There's a weight that was never here before."
It has been a year now. On Nov. 4, 2011, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office filed its presentment against the then 67-year-old Sandusky, Joe Paterno's former longtime defensive coordinator, on 40 counts of sexual assault and advances on eight boys from 1994 to 2009. Within four days, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz were facing charges of perjury before a grand jury and of failure to report suspected child abuse. (Both men deny the allegations; their trials are scheduled for January.) University president Graham Spanier was forced by the trustees to resign, and Paterno, major-college football's alltime wins leader and a symbol of sports rectitude, was fired too.
The parade of horrors has barely slowed since. There was Paterno's death from lung cancer in January; the wrenching testimony of Sandusky's victims during his June trial, which would end in conviction on 45 of 48 counts; the July 12 issuance of the devastating board-commissioned report by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, which said Spanier, Paterno, Schultz and Curley "concealed Sandusky's activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities."
Eleven days later came the NCAA's unprecedented assumption of the report's findings and the issuance of the most punitive measures in NCAA history: the vacating of 112 Penn State wins since 1998, a $60 million fine, the slashing of 20 scholarships per year for four years and a ban on postseason play for the same period. Faced with the NCAA's death penalty, Penn State's new president, Rodney Erickson, tacitly endorsed the Freeh Report's findings and signed the NCAA's consent decree, accepting the description of a "culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human decency."
It was, in sum, a catastrophe unlike any in the history of U.S. higher education. Lives were ravaged and reputations savaged. And whether the affair is anywhere close to being over is debatable. The investigation continues, and Spanier may yet face charges. The 32-member board remains under fire from angry alumni for a perceived rush to dump Paterno and accept the Freeh Report and the NCAA sanctions. And the role of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett in both Paterno's ouster and the state's criminal investigation of Sandusky, which began in 2009 when Corbett was attorney general, threatens to become a defining issue in his 2014 reelection campaign.
As governor, Corbett has a seat on Penn State's board of trustees, a seeming conflict of interest considering that he could attend board meetings with knowledge of an investigation potentially devastating to the school. A recent poll found that a vast majority of Pennsylvanians are unhappy with Corbett's performance on the case. "Because they don't understand it," Corbett said last week. "They're still mad that it happened. They want to have somebody to blame."
In this charged atmosphere, a quaint tradition such as homecoming barely had room to breathe. All the time-honored elements were trotted out: the Friday crowning of a king and queen, the parade and pep rally, the guarding of the Lion Shrine. Even Sue Paterno, the coach's widow, showed up to retell the story of how she began the tradition in 1966. The next day Penn State scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat Northwestern 39--28, an electrifying comeback directed by new head coach Bill O'Brien that once might have signaled a bright new era.
"We'll never get over this," said R. Scott Kretchmar, a professor of sports ethics and philosophy, sitting in his office in Recreation Hall the next day. "It's sort of like the Kent State shooting: Everybody, when they hear 'Kent State,' thinks of a massacre. Whenever they hear 'Penn State,' they're going to think of this."
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.
Yet he's wrong in one respect. Attending a school that "did it the right way" marked me more than I knew. The UNC ethos embodied by basketball coach Dean Smith had burrowed deep. I spent the last 30 years actually believing that big-time sports can be folded into an academic environment without warping it. Now I write for a magazine and website that have denounced the influence of major-college sports while lionizing successful coaches and any athlete who studies hard, stays in school or gets his degree. The implicit message: Yes, college sports can be dirty, but places like Notre Dame, Duke and Stanford prove that white hats can thrive too.
No more. The scandals at Penn State and North Carolina, while different in kind, prove that even at schools with the best intentions, the mere presence of a team that commands TV rights fees worth $20 million to $30 million a year, that financially carries the rest of the athletic department, that with its highly emotional, title-seeking mentality serves as a university's "front porch" will wield influence at least equal to its monetary clout. College sports provide human connection in a uniquely thrilling way, but "when it gets to the money part, then we compromise ourselves," Kretchmar said. "It gets too successful, almost."
Not even the staunchest Paterno apologist will say Joe Pa didn't have great power at Penn State. Not even those sure that Freeh, the NCAA and the national media engaged in a rush to judgment will deny that, faced with the publicity sure to erupt following the revelation of a football celebrity's raping children, the administration choked. "We don't have just one culture at Penn State," said Dr. Dave Joyner, the former Nittany Lions tackle who as a board member voted for Paterno's dismissal and then took over as athletic director. "But there was something out of whack—no question."
Joyner's response has been mostly a matter of tweaks: more professors traveling with teams; a gathering of the top 50 women leaders at the university, hosted by O'Brien; a vague imperative to keep the football program integrated in campus life. "What was the Navy like before Tailhook?" Joyner asks, referring to the scandal in which more than 100 Navy and Marine officers were accused of sexual assault and harassment at a 1991 meeting in Las Vegas. "A bunch of people believed in honor and duty and discipline, and though Tailhook happened, the vast majority still believed. Same thing here. We had a horrible thing happen, but the core values in this university are the same: honor and integrity and academics as the first tenor of what we do."
Joyner's return to "values" is understandable; the program had never before been hit with a major NCAA infraction. Yet it still failed on a deeply moral level, and if Freeh's charge that Sandusky was abetted by a fear of "bad publicity" is proved true, then the problem is larger than anything the NCAA has the tools to fix. Yes, Emmert called Penn State "an athletic culture thatwent horribly awry." But as president of LSU, he also said that success in football was "essential for the success of Louisiana State University." He is part of a system—as shown by the Pac-12's new $4.3 billion TV contract for football—that grows richer and less controllable by the day. "We have met the enemy," said former NCAA president Gene Corrigan last month, "and he is us."
The NCAA and television "have made college football just one notch below professional football," said Corbett. "It's the moneymaker. So if anybody has enhanced the importance of football to the potential of being more important than education, the NCAA is equally involved."
But there's still plenty of guilt, it seems, to go around. To read the billboards flashing outside the state capital, Harrisburg (WHY? WAS GOVERNOR CORBETT SO QUICK TO BLAME JOE PATERNO AND SO SLOW TO PROSECUTE JERRY SANDUSKY); to hear the 2012 Democratic candidate for attorney general, Kathleen Kane, harp on the Republican Corbett's conduct in Sandusky's case; and to see Democrats in the state legislature advance a resolution last month requesting that the U.S. Department of Justice review the handling of the Sandusky investigation and Corbett's role in it, is to see an issue that shows no sign of fading. Last week, to Corbett's displeasure, Kane and her Republican opponent both pledged to look into the Sandusky prosecution if elected.
"Here's what I'm pissed at," Corbett said last Thursday in his office in the Capitol building. "They can go revisit the file, because I know that politics played no part in the decisions. I've never heard of anybody investigating a successful prosecution, 45 of 48 counts."
It doesn't help that last month Aaron Fisher—or Victim 1, as he was known during the trial—told a national TV audience that he considered suicide because of the prosecution's slow pace after he came forward to accuse Sandusky in 2008. Corbett was attorney general then, credited with creating a sexual predators unit that convicted some 300 offenders, and he was mulling his 2010 run for governor. It would take three years for the grand jury to indict Sandusky, and that fact—coupled with campaign contributions that Corbett accepted from board members of Sandusky's charity, the Second Mile, while knowing Sandusky was under investigation—has kept the governor's approval ratings hovering around 30%.
As a result, Corbett has gone on the offensive; at a press conference last Thursday he uncorked a six-minute diatribe against critics of his work in the Sandusky case. Then he sat for a 49-minute interview and provided a more detailed rebuttal. No, he said, there was not, as has been widely reported, only one state trooper assigned to the case for well over a year. "They had two on," Corbett said. And, he added, "as soon as it gets referred to [the Attorney General's office], we put two agents on it."
As for published reports that he received from $200,000 to $650,000 in campaign contributions from current and past Second Mile board members and their businesses, Corbett said the amount was far lower. His office provided a PDF detailing $71,700 in such contributions to his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, for which he is unapologetic. "I can't look backwards," he said. But looking back on his decision in July 2011 to sign off on a $3 million taxpayer-financed grant—initiated by the previous administration—to the Second Mile, Corbett does have second thoughts. "Do I wish I hadn't sent that thing? Yeah," he said. "There was a great deal of pressure to get that one out. Pretty hard for me to say why I can't send it out without tipping away the investigation."
During Sandusky's trial it was revealed that the investigating trooper believed Fisher alone provided enough evidence to charge Sandusky with indecent assault in December 2008—and that Sandusky continued to rape at least one child months after Fisher made his initial report. But Corbett insists that Fisher's credibility would never have survived even a preliminary hearing, and that it wasn't until McQueary's story surfaced in late 2010—after Corbett had been elected governor—that the investigation gained the numerous victims and witnesses necessary to win a prosecution.
The idea that he slowed the prosecution so as not to alienate Penn State voters? "[With] the vast majority of 'Penn State voters,' I believe if we would've arrested and convicted [Sandusky], say, three months before the election, I would've gotten more votes!" Corbett said. "However, people would also say, 'It's political. He should've waited until after the election.'"
Of course, Corbett calls all this "Monday morning quarterbacking." Nearly everything in Pennsylvania these days gets refracted through the prism of football, and he's not popular in Happy Valley. He feuded with Spanier, and his exhortation to "remember the children" during the fateful trustees' meeting on Nov. 9 were among the last words heard before the board voted to fire Paterno. Corbett mouths the local line—Joe never should have been fired by phone, Freeh moved too fast, the sanctions are far too extreme—but all anyone wants to talk about is the baggage.
Not that Corbett can stay away. He said he'd be flying up for the Ohio State game. "Wait till Saturday," he said. "This one's going to be huge."
It was. They were calling it the Banned Bowl and the Sanction Showdown, because both Penn State and Ohio State are ineligible for postseason games, and this, too, is a commentary on the NCAA and the state of college sports: No sporting event in America last Saturday had a larger attendance. Beaver Stadium was packed with 107,818 people, most of them Nittany Lions fans wearing white. Homecoming felt long ago.
Joyner, standing in the milling crowd beforehand, compared Penn State to a body after grievous injury: First there's shock, then healing, and now it's gaining strength—fast. This is all because of O'Brien and his team, which is more disciplined and daring than anyone expected. That undefeated Ohio State won 35--23 doesn't matter much: Only 10 PSU players, including star running back Silas Redd and wide receiver Justin Brown, transferred out in the Sandusky aftermath; the rest stayed to take a punishment they didn't deserve. They'll be remembered forever for that.
"Everywhere you go, people are thanking us for just staying," said senior linebacker Michael Mauti. "I probably have over 2,000 e-mails from fans, people reaching out and supporting us, letting us know where they stand. It means the world that we have everybody behind us and sticking together. It's what needs to be done."
Kretchmar's right: Penn State may never get over this. When Erickson, the school president who signed the consent decree, stepped on the field with Joyner at halftime, a cascade of boos rolled down from the stands. But then Erickson stepped off, the players ran out, and sports did what it does best. It makes you move on, even maybe when you shouldn't.
Ten times in the final seconds the crowd chanted, "We are ... Penn State!" Then the team ran to one corner to face the students, and together they all sang the alma mater, one collective voice bellowing the lines May no act of ours bring shame/To one heart that loves thy name louder than all others. Guilt may have something to do with that, but it sure sounded good.