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The Institutional Pass

By Joe Nocera (New York Times)
November 11, 2011

"Joe is a devout Catholic," a retired football coach named Vince McAneney told a reporter the other day. He was referring, of course, to Joe Paterno.

McAneney, 82, a high school coaching legend in Pennsauken, N.J., had known the 84-year-old Paterno for some 50 years, he told Randy Miller of The Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J., and was "heartbroken" to see his friend fired as the Penn State football coach for his involvement in the sexual abuse scandal that has so soiled the university. Describing Paterno as a devout Catholic was McAneney's way of saying that his friend was still a good and decent man.

But to someone like me, who grew up in a Catholic household, the fact that Paterno was a regular churchgoer is part of what makes his actions — or, more accurately, his inaction — so inexplicable. By March 1, 2002 — the date, according to a grand jury report, that Jerry Sandusky, the former Paterno assistant, was spotted in the locker-room shower raping a boy believed to be about 10 years old — every Catholic was sadly familiar with the sex abuse scandal that had engulfed the Roman Catholic Church. They knew that predatory priests had taken advantage of their proximity and positions of trust to sexually abuse young boys, just as Sandusky appears to have done. They knew that church leaders had covered it up. And they knew the devastating consequences of the abuse.

Two months before Sandusky's alleged rape, The Boston Globe had begun publishing its powerful series on clergy sexual abuse. Dioceses were being sued by lawyers for the victims, who, in turn, were coming forward to describe how the abuse they suffered as children had shattered their lives. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression were common themes.

More shocking yet, Catholics in Paterno's own diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., understood these consequences long before the rest of the country. In 1987, Richard Serbin, an Altoona lawyer representing abuse victims, had sued the diocese. The suit was widely publicized in the local media — publicity that did not diminish much even after he won in 1994 because the diocese kept appealing. (It finally agreed to pay $3.7 million in 2004.) One of the victims Serbin represented was a former altar boy in State College — Penn State's hometown.

Given that foreknowledge, how could Paterno, upon learning that one of his graduate assistants allegedly had seen Sandusky having anal sex with a preteen boy, content himself with mentioning it to his superior and then looking the other way? How could he have allowed Sandusky to maintain access to Penn State's football facilities? How could the university have let him continue to run his youth camps on Penn State property — camps where he no doubt scouted potential targets? Everyone at Penn State who averted their eyes had to know they were doing something abhorrent. They knew from the experience of their own community.

Big-time college football requires grown men to avert their eyes from the essential hypocrisy of the enterprise. Coaches take home multimillion-dollar salaries, while the players who make them rich don't even get "scholarships" that cover the full cost of attending college. They push their "student-athletes" to take silly courses that won't get in the way of football. When players are seriously injured and can no longer play, their coaches often yank their scholarships, forcing them to drop out of school.

"College football and men's basketball has drifted so far away from the educational purpose of the university," James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan, told me recently. "They exploit young people and prevent them from getting a legitimate college education. They place the athlete's health at enormous risk, which becomes apparent later in life. We are supposed to be developing human potential, not making money on their backs. Football strikes at the core values of a university."

It is true that Joe Paterno ran a better program than most, and that no university outside of Notre Dame has benefited more from having a football team than Penn State. Its football renown helped turn a small-time state school into an important research university. But it is also true that, in 2009, Penn State football generated a staggering $50 million in profit on $70 million in revenue, according to figures compiled by the Department of Education. Protecting those profits is the real core value of college football — at Penn State and everywhere else.

What goes on in the typical big-time college football program constitutes abuse of the athletes who play the game. It's not sexual abuse, to be sure, but it's wrong just the same. For 46 years, Joe Paterno averted his eyes to the daily injustices, large and small, that his players suffered — just like Nick Saban does at Alabama and Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, and all the rest of them. When Paterno averted his eyes from Jerry Sandusky, he was just doing what came naturally as a college football coach.