After an eight-month independent investigation, commissioned by Penn State's Board of Trustees, the Freeh report tells us "what" — a "culture which may have enabled these crimes against children" and a willingness to cover them up. The "why" is less obvious.
Freeh's report finds it "reasonable to conclude" the Four Horsemen engaged in what amounts to a conspiracy to "avoid the consequences of bad publicity," while ignoring the victims' welfare. Responding to a reporter's question about Paterno at a news conference here Thursday, Freeh opined that Paterno "could have stopped it."
Penn State leadership was the disease. Freeh was the antiseptic. Is it fair to conclude that the university's fabled football "program" was the carrier? Can we lay the blame for this travesty entirely at football's cleated feet? Is it just the culture of football, or the culture of Penn State, or do we have to take a broader view?
Football is important to many universities because it is a money generator. A winning program extracts cash from wealthy alumni, it expands enrollment, it brings in cash from TV contracts. Football is popular on campus because it is popular off campus. Everyone loves a winner, and the Nittany Lions were winners.
Athletics also provide an opportunity for physically gifted but financially challenged students to get a higher education. To his credit, Paterno saw some 80 percent of his players receive degrees. That's a remarkably good record, but it's only one part of the story.
America worships celebrities, and athletics produce celebrity. The fawning over fame, that's on most of us. That's less a judgment than a fact. It's one of the things killing our national character and intellect.
If you can block a lineman, catch a pass or sink a three-pointer, you will be a BMOC. Play a cello, head the physics club, earn a 4.0 GPA, not so much. The last time academics got national attention was on the "GE College Bowl."
The focus on fame-through-athletics is widespread, but not universal.
The Ivy League decided some decades ago it was not going to play that game. Even without the money that pours in from football, schools like Penn, Princeton, Harvard and Yale manage to not only survive, but thrive. Their focus is where it should be, on academics, on intellectual achievement.
Will other universities emulate the Ivy League? No, because they find it too hard to wean themselves from the money that athletics provide. That system is deeply ingrained and is American as apple pie. Our culture will not be changing soon, and change will not be led by a university system that is too invested in the fame game.
I don't think the Four Horsemen were protecting the football team, not precisely, not exclusively. They were — having broken free from their moral moorings — protecting the Penn State "team," as the church protected its "team" by shielding pedophile priests. In each case, they did it at the expense of innocent children. Few things could be more shameful.
Until "leaders" define their mission as doing the right thing, instead of doing the right thing for me, the Four Horsemen will continue to ride.
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