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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Penn State, who’s to blame



Penn State is proof that our priorities are out of whack

By James Merilatt | @jamesmerilatt

When it comes to the horrific situation at Penn State, we all know who to blame.

Obviously, Jerry Sandusky himself is the most at fault; he’s the psychopath who committed multiple heinous acts against innocent children for decades. And as we found out last week, the higher ups at Penn State are also culpable; university president Graham Spanier, senior VP Gary Schultz, athletic director Tim Curley and head coach Joe Paterno all failed to do everything they could to stop Sandusky.

But there’s another person or two to blame – you and me.

The four most powerful people at Penn State decided not to stop a man from raping children because they decided it would be bad for the football program. Read that sentence again. Let that one sink in. It’s perhaps the most unconscionable thing I’ve ever heard.

And it begs the question: What would create an environment where a decision based on such warped priorities is even possible?

That’s where all of us should start feeling a twinge of guilt. Ultimately, we’ve provided the ingredients – money, power and impunity – that created a disastrous recipe like the one at Penn State.

Why would Paterno, Spanier, Schultz and Curley make such an unspeakable decision? Because the money was too big, they wielded too much power and they didn’t think they’d get caught.

The potential lost revenue from the football program taking a hit due to negative publicity was astronomically high. In 2011, Penn State football generated more than $70 million in revenue, and turned a $50 million profit. Those are the kinds of figures that cause people to do seemingly crazy things.

Since that money comes from you and me, we are somewhat to blame for creating the situation. Granted, we didn’t make the terrible decisions; the people at Penn State did. But we provided the revenue – through ticket sales, TV revenue, donations, etc. – and instilled the win-at-all-costs mentality that made them think the dollars would dry up if they blew the whistle.

If the money wasn’t so ludicrous, perhaps Paterno and Company would have done the right thing. But because we are so willing to invest in sports, especially in teams that win, that wasn’t the case; our insatiable appetite for victory, at almost any price, produced a system where there was enough money at risk that horrific decisions were possible.

In a similar vein, we also created an environment where a football coach – even one with the sterling on-field and in-the-classroom record of Paterno at the time – became the most-powerful man on a college campus. That shouldn’t be the case. Ever. But it was at Penn State. And it is at multiple universities at this very moment.

In Happy Valley, they erected a statue to Paterno outside the football stadium. In Tuscaloosa, they’ve done the same thing for Nick Saban. Meanwhile, the best professors at

Penn State, Alabama or any other “football factory” aren’t being immortalized in bronze.

That’s on us. As a society, we’ve deemed it more important to win a national championship than a Nobel Prize; the respective money and honors we bestow upon coaches versus educators are evidence of this fact.

As a result, a football coach – a guy who leads a group of young men who play a game on Saturday afternoons that is meant to be nothing more than entertainment – wielded enough power at a prestigious university that the men at the top of Penn State’s organizational chart didn’t turn Sandusky in to authorities when he was witnessed raping a 10-year-old child in the Nittany Lions’ locker room.

A man who writes X’s and O’s on a chalkboard for a living should never be that revered. But he was. Because as sports fans, we put sports icons on that kind of pedestal.

That sort of hero worship is why we allow sports figures to get away with things that everyday citizens would be tarred and feathered for doing. Over and over again, we make excuses for the foolish actions of athletes and coaches, we provide chance after chance at redemption and we turn a blind eye to mistakes, providing the type of impunity that eventually makes people in the sports world feel bulletproof.

Sandusky never thought he’d get caught. Neither did Paterno. And by aligning themselves with the almighty coach, Spanier, Schultz and Curley thought they’d be in the clear, as well.

They didn’t just feel this way because they were mentally disturbed (Sandusky) or egomaniacs (all of them). It was also because all of us have let sports heroes get away with so much nonsense in the past that there’s a reasonable expectation that we’ll continue to let anything slide.

A player gets repeatedly busted for drugs? No problem, as long as he can throw strikes. A coach commits recruiting violations at every turn? No sweat, as long he’s cutting down the nets at season’s end. An athlete gets into a violent run-in with his wife? No biggie, as long as he can make a big catch on third-and-eight.

The list goes on and on. And every sports fan is guilty of doing it. We boo troublemakers when they are on the other team, but find reasons to excuse their behavior when they don our favorite uniform. We embrace phrases like “Just win baby” and “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” so we can’t be surprised when the people we cheer for actually live up (or down) to those standards. Our repeated free passes have caused athletes, coaches and administrators to believe that they are above the law.

That’s why, even if it’s in a miniscule way, we are all at fault for the terrible events that took place at Penn State. At the end of the day, we didn’t commit the crimes. And we didn’t cover them up. But we did create the environment that made it possible. For that, all of us who put a little (or far) too much emphasis on sports are to blame for the Sandusky tragedy.

It’s a sobering realization that it’s time to get our priorities in better order. We need to be more careful about where we spend our money, who we empower and when we give second chances. Otherwise, another disastrous incident is just a matter of time.


Want more Mile High Sports? Check out Garrett Duman’s blog at Today, G the Producer finds three stories of note during the slowest week in sports.

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