What should have happened at Penn State University

November 12, 2011|Bill Kohler

The systemic failure of Penn State University to do the right thing in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal is so mammoth and widespread that it's hard to get your head around it.

The more layers that are peeled back, the more rotten the onion.

Despite being a longtime newspaper person who has seen and read all forms of human depravity, it still curdles my stomach to read what allegedly went on behind closed doors with Sandusky, the former Penn State football assistant coach now charged with 40 counts of abusing young boys.

Sandusky is, at this point, only charged with these crimes. However, if true, the acts are an affront to human decency and a horrific crime against these children. I feel for these alleged victims and hope time can heal their wounds.

With that said, the failures of everyone else and the elementary public relations mistakes of professionals at Penn State are inexcusable.

Now, I'm not judging here, and I have no connection to Penn State. I'm not a fan or a graduate. In fact, the inspiration for this column came from a smart and insightful friend who, like me, has no allegiance to the university or its football program.

First things first: Hindsight is always sharper than foresight. "If only I knew then ..." might work in bad real estate deals and poor decisions in the workplace, but not here.

I am not qualified to judge people, but here's what common sense and moral obligation should have led people to do.

This is what should have happened nine years ago when assistant coach Mike McQueary said he witnessed Sandusky allegedly assaulting a boy in the Penn State locker room showers.

No. 1: McQueary should have put a stop to it immediately.

No. 2: McQueary should have reported it to the police first. This is more important than football and loyalty.

No. 3: Joe Paterno, if what the grand jury testimony says is true, should have escorted McQueary to the State College, Pa., police station (not the campus police) and made these accusations known immediately.

No. 4: After Sandusky's pending arrest, the Penn State administration should have immediately banished Sandusky from campus and held a press conference with Paterno and other top officials on hand to announce their full cooperation with the investigation.

No. 5: Even before the press conference, the president of the university — with a stable of incredibly smart people at his disposal — should have assembled a crisis management team that could have included any number of professionals. This team would have consisted of public relations, sociology and behavioral professors; lawyers; and its own media relations department.

Quite frankly, I can't imagine my alma mater, Shippensburg — a Division II state school — handling the situation this poorly.

Those five steps nearly 10 YEARS AGO would have saved a lot of people a world of hurt in 2011.

First and most importantly, it would have saved the children who were hurt by these alleged actions since McQueary's alleged discovery in the locker room showers.

Second, the Sandusky arrest would have been a two-day story and would have gone away until the possible trial or plea and sentencing.

Third, Penn State's reputation would have been bruised a little, but not destroyed as it is now. The onus would have been on the former assistant coach, not everyone else who later fumbled the ball.

Fourth, Joe Paterno would be known as one of the most successful coaches in the history of college football (which arguably he is and deserves to be recognized for) instead of a man who it appears should have done more. He even admitted as much.

Fifth, what about all the parents out there trying to explain this to their sons and daughters? Parenting in 2011 is challenging enough, but how do we explain truthfully why the kindly, grandfatherly JoePa is no longer coaching little Joey's favorite team? How do we explain why Uncle Steve and 20,000 other students are smashing cars and clashing with police?

Honestly, I hope my daughter doesn't ask.

So what can we learn from this?

Wow. That's the $64,000,000 question (inflation, after all).

I don't agree with columnists and other outsiders that canceling the rest of the season or even Saturday's game will really serve any purpose now. Personally, I think that will only punish those — fans, players, vendors, travel agents, etc. — who are not culpable. Fans, I am reminded by another friend and Penn State grad, are there to cheer for the football team through thick and thin because they love college football.

And it just looks like damage control.

The number of things that can be learned from this is too numerous and a little premature for this column.

However, if I've learned one thing, it is this: Doing the right thing, especially when it involves children, is the only way to go. No matter how painful.

And one more thing: My hope from this not only is that the alleged victims will find peace and comfort, but that universities will be put on notice that football is not above the rest of us. That it is not THE most important thing on college campuses.

The Penn State Board of Trustees spokesperson, in announcing the firing of Paterno and the college president Wednesday night, said decisions were made for the good of the university, which is "above its athletic programs."

I hope this to be true. In light of recent events, I'm just having trouble believing it.

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