I can't possibly ignore what might be the biggest off-the-field story in the history of the Big Ten. As everyone with a pulse knows already, NCAA president Mark Emmert elected to circumvent the usual infractions process, and based upon the notion that he was relying upon the findings of Penn State's own investigation (the Freeh Report) imposed what were promised to be, and what turned out to be, "unprecedented" penalties. For the next four years, Penn State will be down 20 scholarships overall, a maximum of 65 compared to 85 for everyone else. The Nittany Lions will be banned from bowl games for the next four seasons, and the Big Ten added to that penalty by making Penn State ineligible for the Big Ten title game for the next four seasons (that's probably purely academic). Penn State was fined $60 million, and will not receive the estimated $13 million annually in shared bowl revenue. In short, the Nittany Lions program will be very ugly for the foreseeable future. Finally, all of Penn State's wins from 1998-2011 have been vacated. This means that Joe Paterno is no longer the winning-est coach in college football history.
A few months ago, shortly before Paterno was fired, I said this:
All that said, reading about this case has me very conflicted. When I read the excuse-making nonsense from Penn State fans about a man they regard as practically Christlike, I want to see Paterno publicly humiliated, given a cardboard box and told to clean out his office. To say that I have been taken aback by the reverence PSU fans have for the man is an understatement, especially considering that as someone who grew up in Indiana in the 1980s and was a student at IU for the tail end of Knight's glory years, I thought I knew what it was like for a fan base to be in the bag for its coach. When I look nearly everywhere else and see the overheated rhetoric toward PSU and Paterno, I want to take a step back. There is one unambiguously evil actor in this saga: Jerry Sandusky. I think the picture blurs a little bit when talking about the others, including Paterno, the Penn State administration, and assistant coach Mike McQueary. The criticism of the way McQueary reacted to the assault he witnessed, running home and talking to his dad about it as opposed to trying to kill Jerry Sandusky with his bare hands, has been discussed elsewhere. The same is true of Paterno's reaction, which included the legally sufficient call to his superiors but none of the outrage that would be expected of a morally upright person and the most powerful person on the Penn State campus. In the end, I'm left with two difficult-to-reconcile positions: I think that Paterno's handling of this situation was abominable, and he deserves to lose his career over it. At the same time, I don't think that Paterno's reputation was fraudulently earned. I think he really was that guy.
This raises all sorts of difficult questions about how people behave in institutions and how they react to news that is difficult to reconcile with what they believe. Jerry Sandusky worked for Paterno for 32 years. I would have to imagine that whether it was 1998 or 2002 when he learned of these allegations, it must have been very difficult to believe, no matter how credible he thought the accusers or witnesses were. Imagine receiving such news about a longtime trusted co-worker, a family member, a favorite teacher, or, of course, a beloved priest or minister. The internet is full of people completely sure of how they would react to such unmitigated evil, but I don't think it's that simple. There is a reason Oskar Schindler is so famous, folks. Okay, the main reason is Steven Spielberg, but there is a reason his acts are so noteworthy. Most people, people who would never do such evil themselves, won't actually put anything on the line to stop it.
The Freeh Report's revelation that Paterno almost certainly knew what was happening in 1998 and was paying close attention to that initial investigation of Sandusky has forced me to dramatically lower my opinion of Paterno. Knowing just how close he seems to have been to the 1998 investigation makes likely a couple of things: first, Joe Paterno probably lied to the grand jury and might be facing indictment himself if he were still alive. Second, while I don't think Penn State necessarily should have acted in 1998 (false allegations do happen, and Sandusky was not prosecuted), his knowledge of the 1998 investigation puts an entirely different gloss on the 2001 reaction. The notion of sexual misconduct by Jerry Sandusky was not new to Paterno in 2001. While Mike McQueary says he provided more detail, even by Paterno's grand jury testimony, McQueary told Paterno that he saw Sandusky "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy." As the Freeh Report details, it would appear that Paterno was involved with the deliberations of Spanier, Schultz, and Curley in deciding whether to report McQueary's allegations, and there is a strong circumstantial case that Paterno may have changed his superiors' minds on what to do. But let's take Paterno's claims at face value. He knew McQueary saw something sexual, he reported it up the chain, and he assumed that it was being addressed. Paterno's knowledge of and close monitoring of the 1998 investigation make it impossible to believe that Paterno thought the investigation was ongoing. He knew what these investigations involved. He had to believe that an eyewitness report from a Penn State assistant coach would have more weight than the previous allegations, which came only from an underage victim. To believe that Paterno was telling the truth about 2001 requires the belief that he was less interested in the 2001 investigation, the one based on an eyewitness account of one of his assistants, than he was about the earlier investigation. It simply doesn't wash.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the whole thing is just how business-as-usual things were at Penn State's football facility. Sandusky was still using workout facilities there, and still had keys to the building, until days before his indictment. This was months after Paterno and others associated with Penn State had testified before the grand jury and obviously knew that another investigation was underway. I've never been able to make sense of this, but what seems pretty clear is that Paterno and others were hoping that once again, this issue would simply go away. It's hard to believe, but it comes easier to believe when that when I said this, I was dead wrong: "I don't think that Paterno's reputation was fraudulently earned. I think he really was that guy." He wasn't. Over the last few weeks, Penn State fans have protested that while it appears Joe made some major errors in judgment, this doesn't overwhelm all of the good he did. Nonsense. Of course, I agree that setting high standards means occasionally falling short of those standards. That's certainly true. But this isn't a minor misstep. Joe Paterno went on and on about "success with honor." Yet, when he was faced with the near certain knowledge that a child molester was using his football building to rape little boys, he did the bare minimum. And that's the best case scenario. The Freeh Report presents a strong case that Paterno actively frustrated the attempts of others to report the 2001 incident. Penn State fans would have a point if we were talking about grabbing an official or saying something rude in a press conference or mishandling a player discipline issue. This wasn't a minor misstep, and it wasn't "a" misstep. This is the worst thing we know of that has ever happened in a college football program, and other than Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno probably had more power than anyone else to stop it. From the moment Mike McQueary came to talk to him in 2001, Paterno knew or should have known that he had a monster in his midst. And he didn't make one mistake. He made a mistake every single day for the better part of a decade when he consciously or unconsciously decided to do nothing. "Success with honor" was meaningless when it mattered most.
Well, that's enough for the soapbox. I do think it is worth chewing on whether the NCAA did the right thing and whether this sets an uncomfortable precedent. All in all, I think I'm pretty comfortable with it. I don't expect that we will see a rash of presidential-level decisions. My guess is that the usual enforcement issues will continue to go through the usual enforcement process, from the mundane to the serious. The Penn State situation is unique, given that it involved criminal acts that were so closely tied to and abetted by the football program. These weren't just any criminal acts. It seems to be widely accepted that child sexual abuse is worse than anything other than murder. I don't think we will see the NCAA getting involved in issues of tax fraud or drunk driving, for instance. Perhaps Emmert will become power-hungry and go down that road again, but I doubt it.
Finally, it's at least worth considering the competitive implications for IU. First, it means that there are only four teams truly competing for the "Leaders Division" crown (my God, are those names not ten times more embarrasing than they were a year ago? And they were pretty damn embarrassing then). Ohio State is ineligible as well this year, which leaves Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois, and IU as the only teams eligible to make it to Indy. Frankly, of the schools other than Wisconsin, Purdue, which went 4-4 in the Big Ten last year, seems best positioned to surprise. Finally, IU is 0-15 all-time against Penn State. Penn State's wins were vacated, not forfeited, so IU remains 0-15 against Penn State. But the Hoosiers will have their chance in the next four to five years, and perhaps longer. The wringer that was the Leaders Division is a little less daunting today.
Finally, while I knew of IU's four year all-sports postseason ban in the early 1960s, I had no idea that it was the recordholder. I'm sure that Phil Dickens's shenanigans in the late 1950s are the worst thing that has ever happened in college football, right?