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Penn State University & the Folly of ‘Moving Forward, Not Looking Back’

Penn State University's football stadium known as Beaver Stadium (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

What former FBI director Louis Freeh described in the report that came from an eight-month inquiry included details on how the institution of Penn State University had shown “total disregard for the safety and welfare” of the child victims of now-convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky “by the most senior leaders” of the university.

For fourteen years, the university put its prestigious football program ahead of doing anything for the children, who were victimized. This is appalling and despicable. And, now, today the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has levied incredibly severe penalties against the institution for covering up crimes that were committed against children.

The penalties are as follows: a $60 million sanction against the university (equal to the average gross annual revenue of the football program); a stipulation that the $60 million be “paid into an endowment for external programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims”; a four-year ban against participating in any post-season bowls; a “vacation of all wins from 1998 through 2011” to be reflected in former head football coach Joe Paterno’s record; and the reduction of ten initial and twenty total scholarships “each year” for the next four years.

Such punishment against a university is unprecedented in the history of the NCAA. In fact, Nation sports writer Dave Zirin calls the penalties a “crime masquerading as a farce.” Zirin said it wasn’t the “death penalty” but rather “life without the possibility of parole.” He characterized the punishment of Penn State as a “stomach-turning, precedent-setting, and lawless turning point in the history of the NCAA.” He declared the punishment levied by NCAA President Mark Emmert was “nothing less than an extra-legal, extra-judicial imposition into the affairs of a publicly funded campus. If allowed to stand, the repercussions will be felt far beyond Happy Valley.”

Take a step back from the hysteria and just think about what took place: Penn State committed no violations of any NCAA by-laws. There were no secret payments to “student-athletes,” no cheating on tests, no improper phone calls, no using cream cheese instead of butter on a recruit’s bagel, or any of the Byzantine minutiae that fills the time-sheets that justify Mark Emmert’s 1.6 million dollar salary.

What Penn State did was commit horrific violations of criminal and civil laws and they should pay every possible price for shielding Sandusky, the child rapist. This is why we have a society with civil and criminal courts. Instead we have Mark Emmert inserting himself in a criminal matter and acting as judge, jury and executioner, in the style of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. As much as I can’t stand Goodell’s authoritarian, undemocratic methods, the NFL is a private corporation and his method of punishment was collectively bargained with the NFL Players Association. Emmert, heading up the so-called non-profit NCAA, is intervening with his own personal judgment and cutting the budget of a public university. He has no right and every school under the auspices of the NCAA should be terrified that he believes he does. [emphasis added]

Despite the fact that the punishment likely punishes people who bear no responsibility for the crimes of the university, there are multiple informal polls on the Internet right now showing support for this action that was taken by the NCAA. In fact, there appears to be a significant number of people, who think the penalties do not go far enough and Penn State should have had their football program suspended for an entire season.

The moment is culturally fascinating. A section of the population understands that the wide institution was responsible. They believe the football program should pay. They might even agree the entire Board of Trustees needs to be expelled. Who knows if they would support what Zirin suggests—a “full investigation of Gov. Tom Corbett and his own extra slow-motion investigation of Sandusky when he was the state’s Attorney General” and former Gov. Ed Rendell, who was a Board of Trustee during Sandusky’s presence on campus. Regardless, a significant section of the American population has their minds on the idea of holding an entire institution accountable.

One could say they are opposed to the idea of “moving forward, not looking back,” a mantra that has become synonymous with the actions of President Barack Obama’s administration. Those who support accountability for Penn State place the necessity of justice ahead of whether it will divide the institution. They, perhaps, understand what Penn State President Rodney Erickson appears to understand: the university “must create a culture in which people are not afraid to speak up, management is not compartmentalized, all are expected to demonstrate the highest ethical standards, and the operating philosophy is open, collegial, and collaborative.”

Accountability and justice, in the long run, can make an institution stronger. Then again, they might not be thinking any of that at all. They might only be thinking of what it would be like for a child to be violated by Jerry Sandusky. That might be enough to create emotional and visceral support for punishing the entire university.

In recent years, Gallup found that Americans favored investigations into “the firing of eight US attorneys (72%), government databases of telephone numbers dialed by Americans [NSA warrantless wiretapping] (62%), oil company profits (82%), and the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina (70%).” A clear majority did not, however, favor an investigation into Bush administration torture and found the “harsh interrogation techniques” used on detainees in the “war on terror” to be justified.

The media bears a large amount of responsibility for this. Torture is inarguably a war crime. Waterboarding, when done to the Japanese during World War II, was a war crime and military officers were prosecuted. That kind of blunt statement was always lacking in coverage. In contrast, the media has no problem calling out Penn State for shielding a pedophile. The powerful—people like Louis Freeh, who used to run a domestic intelligence agency—were on board with the investigation. (It is suspected the Justice Department and Education Department have measures planned for Penn State in addition to the NCAA’s penalties today.)

It is nearly impossible to find a polling organization that asked Americans if Wall Street should be investigated and punished for committing crimes. However, multiple polls taken in the past couple years indicate a majority support the government restricting salaries or compensation to executives of banks that were bailed out. They favored limiting pay and bonuses. They favored more regulation. They doubted that Wall Street would learn from “mistakes” that led to the 2008 economic collapse and believed everything would return to “business as usual.” They found Big Banks have too much influence over the decision-making of the Obama administration. All that suggests that if the Obama Justice Department was not subservient to financial interests on Wall Street the public would not oppose rooting out characters that had committed financial crimes in the same way that characters involved in covering up Sandusky’s pedophilia have been rooted out.

The penalties levied may go too far or not far enough. Regardless, Penn State University and all involved in the coverup are in the process of being held accountable for what happened. If we agree corrupt institutions like Penn State University deserve to be punished to the nth degree for committing crimes, can we agree institutions of government and those who staff those institutions, which govern society, must be held accountable? Doesn’t this begin to prove the way to revitalize and restore institutions must involve a cleansing of actors, who are morally bankrupt and disgraceful in their conduct?

Power has no incentive to correct the most vile policies and activities that regularly occur within its institutions. It has no incentive unless there is transparency and unless a small group of people within the institution speak out. Thus, this is why whistleblowers face retaliation and why institutions fight to stay ahead of the media and control narratives to prevent scandals from breaking. Outside of media and whistleblowing, there are the people in society who catch a whiff of what is going on and have a duty or moral obligation to inform fellow citizens and speak out as well so injustice and suffering is brought to a halt. Once the crimes are brought to a halt, the next step is renewing a commitment to values so that people involved in crimes do not get off with a mere slap on the wrist and the right people—the actual people responsible—are punished instead of individuals who bear absolutely no responsibility for the corruption that occurred.

Penn State at this hour represents a microcosm. Outside forces have decided to make an example out of the university. It is a decision that few would have the guts to make and impose on agencies or institutions in the United States government. Such zealous action is unthinkable in this political climate. Yet, the deficit of trust, the lack of faith in government and the rottenness of political dealings these days calls for a collective group of people to press for total justice in agencies and institutions in the same way a community of people inside and outside of Penn State have pushed for severe punishment.

Update 1 

Bmaz has a good take on the penalties levied against Penn State by the NCAA here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."