The always-excellent Dave Sheinin filed the game-day story from State College yesterday, capturing the anguish and tears of the Penn State faithful as they watched their team play the first game in 62 years without Joe Paterno on the sideline. The new coach, Tom Bradley, is quoted near the end of Sheinin’s article: “I felt today that just maybe the healing process began.” That depends, I think, on what happens next. My sense as a newspaper reporter is that there are more wounds to come. This story has the potential to grow into something even bigger, and more preoccupying of the nation’s attention, as investigators look more deeply at the Penn State program, the alleged pedophilia by former Paterno deputy Jerry Sandusky, the actions of Paterno and the school administrators, the failure of law enforcement to stop these crimes sooner, and the culture of big-time college football.
This is already the biggest story in the country, for a lot of reasons. One is, obviously, that an icon of college football, the guy who won more games than anyone else at his level, has seen his storied career come to a shocking end. But this also has the Kitty Genovese angle: How could people let this happen? Why didn’t they do more to stop it?
As a science writer, my instinct is to wonder about the psychology of non-intervention. Where’s the research on why people don’t do more when they know they should? This “bystander effect” that Jenna Johnson wrote so well about last week, pegged to the Lululemon case — how much did that factor in here? [If there are any expert sources out there, email me at achenbachj at washpost.com]
But that may be too narrow of a way to look at the case. Sometimes you don’t need a lot of science and psychology to figure out why people do what they do. They act in their perceived self-interest. They do things that make sense to them but which others would perceive as a criminal intent. This may simply be that: A case of an institution sweeping crimes under the rug because of a concern for its reputation and for the possible liability of the people in charge.
If so, that reveals how limited we are in discerning what’s in our best interest over the long term. And more kids got hurt as an alleged predator was allowed to roam free. (Oh, but they took away his keys to the locker room!)
There’s more to learn here. There are likely other victims who will come forward. For conspiracy buffs, there’s the mysterious angle of the D.A., Ray Gricar, who decided not to prosecute Sandusky in 1998 and then vanished without a trace in 2005, his laptop found in a creek, hard drive destroyed (the cops says there’s no connection and I’ve seen no evidence that there is).
All of Paterno’s assistants will likely be out of work soon, and some may have stories that don’t directly relate to the Sandusky case but might shed light on the nature of big-time college ball.
Obviously, I’m speculating. But my hunch is that this isn’t going to be over anytime soon and there are many more twists to come.
A final thought: As a country, we need Penn State. It is in our interest that Penn State recover from this scandal, eventually. Think of all the talk in recent years about America’s standing in the world, and how this country will fare amid a changing global landscape, with China rising, the global economy flattening, and so on. What does everyone always say? That we still have the best universities. And it’s true. People from around the world want to come here — not to watch college football teams supervised by $5 million-a-year coaches, but to become physicists and biologists and computer engineers. Schools like Penn State are nothing less than a national asset.
The healing will begin only after the full and unvarnished truth about the Sandusky case comes out.