Freeh report exposes an unhealthy culture of reverence for big-time college sports
By Tracee Hamilton,
Among the most shocking revelations in the 162-page Freeh report is that there isn’t a shocking revelation to be found. By now even the most skeptical had to realize that Jerry Sandusky had done the horrible deeds he was found guilty of doing, that the late Joe Paterno had known about them and that university and community officials had looked the other way.
If you were a doubter till the bitter end, this is that bitter end. Read the report compiled by former FBI director Louis Freeh and his law firm. If you can make it to the final page and still not see the culpability of the major characters in this dreadful drama, then you’re willfully blind.
The only line in the entire document that brought so much as a glimmer of a smile was this one, which cited one of the causes for the scandal as “a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus.”
A culture of reverence. That’s what existed in Happy Valley, all right, and not only there. Behind every great football program there is a culture of reverence, and behind many not-so-great ones, too. (At some schools, of course, you need to substitute “basketball” for “football,” but it’s the same difference.) And with this culture comes corruption. You think a culture of reverence didn’t contribute to the recent contretemps at Ohio State, Southern Cal and Miami, just to name a few?
College football is in crisis, at least among thinking fans who have observed the corners cut, the cheating, the players not graduated, the unfairness of the postseason, and have questioned their loyalty to a sport with so many problems and so few solutions in sight. And then came Sandusky, and the revelations of what happened at Penn State. And Saturday afternoons for some went from uncomfortable to untenable.
Yet the combination of pedophilia and big-time athletics should surprise no one with an understanding of the sickness (and if you don’t know the warning signs, educate yourself, right now). Pedophiles need bait, and tickets and autographs, and backstage access to some of the best athletes are tremendous lures. One of the saddest aspects of the Penn State scandal is the length to which the university was willing to go to ignore the rape of children not only by an employee of the school, but on school property, and on school-funded trips. Astounding.
And it’s one reason the Freeh report shouldn’t be the last word on the topic.
After Mike McQueary witnessed the assault in the showers in February 2001, officials — who knew about the 1998 allegations that were investigated, don’t forget — seem at first prepared to act but suddenly backed off. They agreed instead to have a stern talking-to with Sandusky. Athletic Director Timothy Curley suggests telling Sandusky that they are “uncomfortable” with this information, that they will inform Second Mile, the charity that Sandusky had founded, and that Sandusky wasn’t allowed in athletic facilities with children. In other words, don’t do this on our property again. University President Graham Spanier’s response? “The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed.”
Well, no, it was neither humane nor reasonable. It was unbelievably cruel, and incredibly stupid. Oh, it was kindness itself to Sandusky. But never in these e-mail exchanges do you get the feeling these men realize they are talking about children who have been sexually assaulted, and that their gyms, showers, football games, road trips and possibly even themselves have been used as lures by a child rapist.
The culture of reverence appears throughout the report. In 1998, when detectives interviewed Sandusky about some of his now infamous showers, they did so in the Lasch building, where the incidents occurred, so as not to the put the former defensive coordinator, ironically enough, on the defensive. In other words, they gave the pedophile the home-field advantage. Interrogating him in a police station might have at least scared the man into getting help or admitting he had a problem.
It was clear from his comment to the mother of one of his victims — “I wish I were dead” — that Sandusky knew what he was doing was wrong and that he couldn’t or wouldn’t stop just because some university officials told him to. That remark was as much of a warning as any of the accusations his victims made. Penn State wasn’t listening to any of them.
So what now? Many of the recommendations in the report are bureaucratic: The athletic department should no longer have free rein at the university. University officials should provide answers when the Board of Trustees has questions. And everyone needs some human resources training, stat.
Is that enough? It’s hard to feel vindictive when the principal players have left the stage: Sandusky is in prison; Paterno has passed away. Other officials are gone, fired or resigned.
And yet, and yet . . . is the culture of reverence still there? On Saturday afternoons, is it going to be easy to forget those poor shivering boys as fans stroll campus in the beautiful autumn sunshine? If Penn State comes away unscathed — no scholarships lost, no outside controls put in place — does that send the message that even child rape is less important than a bowl appearance and a Big Ten title?
The NCAA death penalty feels good and right today, when we’re outraged anew at the gross injustices perpetrated at Penn State. It’s probably not going to happen, not the least because the NCAA no longer has the clout to pull it off. Conferences rule the world, and TV contracts rule the conferences. It’s probably too much to hope that the NCAA can quit wringing its hands long enough to do anything.
That leaves Penn State. The school has done its share of hand-wringing, insisting that this is an aberration. So appoint an independent body to administer some rough justice, and then take the punishment. As we’ve seen, a stern talking-to — even one that lasts 162 pages — just isn’t going to cut it.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.
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