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An Opportunity at Scandal-Ridden Penn State

Can the administrators, staff and students at Penn State turn their culture around?

In the wake of the Louis Freeh report and the $60 million fine, the 4-year postseason ban and loss of some scholarships, one thing remains clear: football is still more important than morals, ethics and the safety of children in a damaged collegiate athletics culture that values winning and money above all else. 

Yes, the sanctions are unprecedented. Yes, they took away Joe Paterno's wins going back to ’98. Yes, these penalties will damage the program more than a simple one-year “death penalty” ban would have. But no, they’re still not strong enough to dissuade other “academic” officials from making the same morally repugnant decisions that bring marquee names to the field and filthy lucre into the coffers.

At least the NCAA acted swiftly, despite the handwringing of a current unnamed official who complained that the Jerry Sandusky affair falls outside its jurisdiction (sorry, buddy, not really). And, despite rumors to the contrary, the $60 million fine will go toward helping and preventing the sexual abuse of minors. A small victory, but a victory nevertheless.

What would have been better? How about shutting down the entire Penn State football program for a five-year period, instead of just banning bowl games for four? How about taking away national television privileges? And how about upping that fine to something more than the equivalent of one year of Nittany Lion football revenue?

When the scandal broke last fall, the outpouring of support for Paterno and his staff astonished me. Everyone noted his commitment to academics, as if that makes him some sort of saint – excuse me, aren’t student-athletes students first?

(Paterno isn’t the only coach to insist upon good grades. Just check out Mike Krzyzewski down at Duke, or the incredible, superhuman Naismith Coach of the Century, Pat Summitt, recently retired due to a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s.)

Frankly, I’m astonished that any parent would allow a child to attend PSU this coming fall, given the clearly pervasive football-first culture at the school. Even today, one whiny Penn State fan lamented the tearing down of the JoePa statue and the record adjustment, noting that “one bad decision” shouldn’t alter a lifetime of good deeds.

Give me a break.

As for the current players, the N.C.A.A. ruled that they could transfer out, subject to certain eligibility rules. And while academic officials are publicly clucking and shaking their heads at the whole affair, the New York Times reported that their football coaches are studying the current PSU roster for players they can woo to their own programs.

Yuck. Legitimate, but yuck.

On the plus side, one has to give credit to Penn State for two things. First, its own Board of Directors hired Freeh to conduct the investigation, and it agreed with the report’s findings. Two, it accepted the N.C.A.A. sanctions without complaint.

Penn State now has a real opportunity to be a leader where it matters most, and that’s not on the football field. It must demonstrate to the community that the members of its football team are not more equal than others. It must reestablish itself as an institution where learning comes first. It must recruit coaches, players and administrators with unassailable characters and the records of achievement to back it up.

Perhaps it should heed the words of its own motto, and it should make life better for not just some, but for all.

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