The Next Step for Penn State
by Danny Vinik
Jurors found former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky guilty on 45 of 48 counts of child sex abuse on Friday, with the charges carrying a minimum of 60 years in prison. The 68-year-old Sandusky will almost certainly be in jail the rest of his life.
With Sandusky’s trial over, the focus will shift back to Penn State, where many of the victims are planning to file civil cases against the university. As Daniel wrote back in March, it is likely that Penn State knew that Sandusky had a major problem, but kept quiet for financial reasons:
Certainly it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to argue that various administrators and officials’ pay was tied to the success of the team, which would give them a very compelling reason not to come forward about what they knew about Sandusky’s behavior.
This is abundantly evident in the rash of departures following the emergence of the scandal: Former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and former Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz resigned last November and face charges of their own - one count of failing to report child abuse and one count of perjury each. Legendary head coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier were fired in November as well. Paterno died from lung cancer two months later.
The problems at Penn State were not confined to the locker room. At each level of the university, the school’s most important leaders failed to act and enabled Sandusky.
As Huffington Post blogger Louis Peitzman wrote on Gawker, “How responsible is Penn State for what Jerry Sandusky did?”
The final answer will come out in the civil cases with at least one and likely many more victims filing suit against the school for allowing Sandusky’s crimes to occur. At the moment, the evidence is strongly against the university as former graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno in 2002 that he saw Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy. Paterno revealed the information to Curley and Schultz, but none of them went to the police. Sandusky was allowed to stay on campus and continue using the facilities until he was arrested this past year.
This happened, this scandal, this cover-up, this riot, because at school like Penn State football is more important than anything else. This is what allowed the school to ignore problems with Sandusky for quite awhile. That’s also part of what caused students to howl in protest when their beloved head football coach was fired after he informed his boss when a graduate assistant told him that one of his staffers and friends was raping an underage boy.
The next step is trying to prevent this institutional failure from occurring again. It extends beyond universities and college athletics to every organization and company: how do you convince a firm to turn in a sexual predator when it will hurt the reputation and reduce the profits of that firm?
Many states have toughened their laws relating to reporting sexual abuse in response to the sexual abuse at Penn State. In Pennsylvania, state representative Kevin Boyle has proposed a bill that would add to the list of occupations in which a person must report suspected child abuse. Boyle specifically underlines “school staff member, school faculty, [and] coach” in the bill, demonstrating the connection Penn State. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 30 states have proposed 105 bills related to the mandatory reporting of potential child abuse in 2012 and ten states have enacted laws.
While these bills are a step in the right direction, it is unclear whether or not they will be effective.
These new laws appear necessary because appealing to the morals of individuals is not enough, as this scandal has demonstrated. By all accounts, Joe Paterno was a good man. He cared deeply about his players and their academics, as well as their football. However, in the biggest decision of his life, he chose football over ethics. He won more games than any other Division I coach in college football history, but his legacy will be defined by the Sandusky affair and his failure to lead throughout it.
Current and future leaders may think twice in the future about ignoring such abhorrent crimes, not because they want to do what’s right, but because they fear their reputation will be forever sullied if the public discovers their inaction.
For many though, the decision whether or not to turn over such a criminal may come down to money. And here the court has a chance to make a lasting impression. An expensive ruling against the university will not undo Sandusky’s horrible crimes, but it may serve as a deterrent against future institutions acting as Penn State did. As Paterno and Penn State have shown, that may be the only thing that can convince schools and their officials to act ethically.