A tragic scandal was exposed at Pennsylvania State University last week. Jerry Sandusky, former assistant football coach for the Nittany Lions, was accused of sexually abusing young boys, which allegedly occurred on Penn State’s campus. His alleged crimes are by far the most shocking aspect of the situation, but the silence of many high-ranking coaches and administrators who knew about the abuse is unacceptable.
As humans, we have a moral responsibility to protect children and report suspected or confirmed crimes, regardless of if the action personally affects us. In light of the horrific event, universities across the country — including the University of Michigan — must ensure they are fostering an environment in which good morals come before all other priorities.
Graduate student assistant Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy and reported what he saw to the university’s head football coach Joe Paterno. Paterno was fired — effective immediately — by the university’s Board of Trustees last Wednesday and McQueary was placed on an indefinite administrative leave. Penn State University President Graham B. Spanier — one of the longest serving presidents in the country — was also fired by the board.
As the leader of Penn State’s football program and prominent figure at the university for 46 years, Paterno had an obligation to report these crimes and ensure an investigation took place. He failed to do so. McQueary had a duty to react immediately to the crime he witnessed by helping the child and involving the police. He also failed to do so. While it has been claimed that both individuals did what was minimally required of them in the eyes of the law — the incident was reported by both to their boss — in situations of abuse against innocent children, the legal minimum is simply not enough. Sandusky’s victims and any victims of child abuse deserve better.
College athletics have come to a peculiar status at universities. As sports bring in more money and fans become more invested in the success of their schools, a strange culture begins to form. There are all kinds of legal violations that have been found to be taking place in college sports, and there is an inclination to address them internally for the sake of the university and its brand. The negative reaction to Paterno’s firing is a testament to the impervious nature of this culture and how much people will ignore for the greatness of their school.
Every university, government body and business needs to foster an environment in which people feel safe — safe among their co-workers, safe in the workplace and safe to come forward with information, regardless of what it involves. College football programs cannot be exempt from the rules. Despite the vast amount of money football brings in at many large universities and the power successful coaches hold, the programs and people within them must be held to the same standards as any other department on campus.
The horrible situation at Penn State remained a secret for nearly a decade because of the program’s power and the fear that disclosing the information could harm that status. But from the moment children were harmed, this issue was no longer about football and was instead about basic humanity. We all have a responsibility to be people first and fans second.