Phil Sheridan: Sandusky trial illustrates football's frightening power

Mike McQueary (right) leaves the Centre County Courthouse after testifying against Jerry Sandusky. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Mike McQueary (right) leaves the Centre County Courthouse after testifying against Jerry Sandusky. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 13, 2012

And it all revolved around football.

That is the sickening thought that keeps creeping to mind with each update from the Jerry Sandusky trial in Bellefonte, Pa. On the day Mike McQueary finally testified in open court, and with fresh revelations shedding more damning light on the entire Penn State hierarchy, that fundamental truth seemed more absurd and unforgivable than ever.

Football.

Sandusky had power and access to these kids because of football. Adults didn't believe accusations because of a reputation he created through football. McQueary didn't rush to the proper authorities upon seeing Sandusky with a child in the shower; he went to the head football coach. It seems ever more clear that PSU president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and administrator Gary Schultz took no real action against Sandusky in order to protect the football program.

Football. When weighed against word that a child had been molested, and the possibility that others would be, these men decided football was more important. Football.

After Tuesday's testimony, we have to rethink our definition of manliness. We apply words such as courage and fearless and macho to guys who put on pads and helmets and run around a field. But the man known as Victim 1, who wept and squirmed while telling his horror story on the witness stand, is 100 times more of a man, displaying a million times more courage, than anyone connected to this case by way of the Penn State football program.

Spanier and Schultz reportedly exchanged e-mails in which they discussed whether it was "humane" to report Sandusky to outside authorities. It never occurred to them, apparently, whether it was humane to allow more children to be attacked by him.

Schultz reportedly kept a file on Sandusky that he declined to provide to investigators once the case slipped out of Penn State's jurisdiction. Stopping a child predator was not as important as the almighty football program.

McQueary testified he slammed a locker door to break up the attack he stumbled upon, but never said a word to Sandusky or even followed up with questions about who the kid was, what was done to protect him or to punish Sandusky. He kept his mouth shut and was rewarded with a better job in the football program.

As tragic as Joe Paterno's final months turned out to be, it must be said that he also chose to let the shower incident pass without a single follow-up. He hoped it would all go away, and instead it wound up festering for another decade - with more alleged victims - and then erupting into a conflagration that consumed Paterno and the program he built.

All that talk about honor and integrity, all that pride in a football team, and then all that cowardice and inaction and failure when it mattered most.

All in the name of football.

That's not to mention Sandusky's attorneys, whose strategy of attacking the accusers seems certain to backfire. Sandusky is entitled to a vigorous defense, but victimizing the victims all over again is a despicable tactic. You can only hope the judge and jury make Sandusky pay somehow for choosing this brutality instead of a plea deal.

But then, why would we expect honor from this man now?

A lot was said and many assumptions were made in the immediate aftermath of the shocking grand jury report. It looked bad - for Sandusky, for McQueary, for Paterno, for Spanier and his staff, for Penn State.

Seven months later, with witnesses finally testifying in open court and various investigations beginning to bear fruit, it looks worse. The stain is permanent and has spread to the board of trustees, whose obliviousness borders on negligence, and even to the governor's mansion. Gov. Corbett was attorney general during much of the grand jury investigation. It is fair to ask whether Sandusky added victims while that investigation dragged on for almost three years. It is also fair to wonder what other considerations were at work, whether political football was as much a factor as college football in shielding Sandusky.

So far, only one person has really wondered aloud whether his inaction allowed Sandusky to attack innocent children. It wasn't any of the tough football men or distinguished educators or empty-suit lawyers or politicians.

It was the man known as Victim 4, the first to testify in court Monday. He is 28 now.

"I spent so many years burying this in the back of my mind - forever," he testified. "I thought I was the only one, and I was OK with that. I feel responsible now for what happened to the other victims."

He is not, of course. If all this is true, Jerry Sandusky is.

But if all this is true, Sandusky was allowed to operate for years because other men decided there was something more important than innocent children.

Football.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster, and his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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