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Posted at 09:51 AM ET, 07/13/2012

The Penn State football cult

I spent yesterday immersed in the Freeh report and the associated news conferences, and as horrible and dismaying as it all is, it’s also enlightening, and illustrative of how a powerful institution can become corrupted at the core, believing in its own virtue right up to the point where it self-destructs. (Please read what my colleagues have written — among them, Jenna Johnson and Amy Shipley in a front-page piece, and Sally Jenkins and Tracee Hamilton in the sports section.)

Because of leaks to the news media we’d already heard about the smoking-gun emails in which Penn State’s top officials changed their mind about going to child welfare authorities after learning of the 2001 allegation that Jerry Sandusky had assaulted a boy in a locker room shower. What we hadn’t seen until yesterday were the 1998 emails and handwritten notes revealing that the top Penn State officials — president Graham Spanier, coach Joe Paterno, university vice-president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley — knew that Sandusky was under investigation for possible pedophilia. That makes the 2001 response by these officials all the more shocking. There’s a stunning lack of concern for the boys involved. It’s like the boys aren’t real. The only thing that is real is the program, and the need to make the problem go away.

It’s a classic Black Swan event: When the grand jury report came out in November, and Sandusky was arrested, it caught the Penn State trustees totally off guard. That’s in part because Spanier and the university lawyer downplayed the Sandusky investigation and made it seem like someone else’s problem. In retrospect, like all Black Swan events it had countless precursors and warnings.

The cover-up alleged by Freeh was motivated out of a desire to avoid bad publicity. We can now safely say that the strategy failed.

Both Sally and Tracee deal with the insular, almost cult-like quality of the Penn State football program (Freeh talked about the “culture of reverence” for PSU football). I don’t throw around the word “cult” lightly here. I’m a college football fan and root for my Gators. Why? I dunno, just because it’s where I’m from and what I’ve always done. There’s an emotional connection that’s irrational. It really doesn’t matter, in a practical sense, if they win or lose. But the bond endures over distance and decades.

Now take Penn State, a great school tucked back in the Appalachians, with a legendary coach who’s been there since they were playing with leather helmets [blogger exaggerating here for effect, please don’t correct]. The football program was what Paterno called the Grand Experiment: Not just a football program that wins national championships but one that does it the right way.

Paterno’s final argument, delivered from beyond the grave Wednesday in the form of a letter produced by his family, strenuously contends that this is not a “football scandal.” He was desperate to defend the program and his Experiment. But of course this tragedy could never have happened without the distorting effects of football’s popularity and importance to the university. Would Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley have handled the situation the same if this was a scandal within the Agricultural Sciences department?

The Penn State debacle will be studied for years, because it reveals how good institutions go bad, how the best and brightest leaders can create a catastrophe, how evil can grow in what had seemed an Eden. It’s way too easy to say, simply, these were bad guys here, now they’re caught. You don’t learn anything with that attitude. What makes this case so horrible is that these men were the best in their fields by reputation and were pillars of their community. Spanier, for example, was an academic superstar; the trustees who spoke yesterday made it clear they were delighted to have him at the helm and trusted him to the point of shutting down their brains entirely. The next big question is whether and when Spanier will be charged in relation to the Sandusky case.

This is a case that argues for term limits of some kind in major institutions that can succumb to cultdom. We venerate Paterno-like figures who somehow stick around for decades at institutions, but now look how perverse such a situation can become.

So: Question authority. Speak up. Report it. Silence is the enemy.

By  |  09:51 AM ET, 07/13/2012

 
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