Joe Paterno Is the NCAA's Scapegoat

All the blame of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal shouldn't fall on Joe Paterno.

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** FILE ** Penn State coach Joe Paterno acknowledges the crowd during warmups before the game against Wisconsin in State College, Pa., in a Saturday, Nov. 5, 2005 file photo. No one wants to run Joe Paterno out of Happy Valley. Not after the Nittany Lions went 11-1 last season. Paterno turns 80 in December and can't coach forever. What awaits Penn State when Paterno finally retires?

The NCAA came down hard on the Pennsylvania State University Monday—and deservedly so in the minds of many people. Whatever one may think about the report compiled by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, it certainly does appear that senior university officials did what they could to keep the truth about former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky from becoming known.

Much of the attention—and the punishment—has focused on Joe Paterno, the legendary former coach who, until Monday, was the "winningest coach" in college football history.

Paterno was fired after the Sandusky scandal became public and died shortly thereafter, meaning he's not around to defend himself. His statue has been taken down. He has lost his status as "the winningest coach" because the NCAA stripped Penn State of all its victories between 1998 and 2011. In short, he's being made into a convenient scapegoat for the NCAA and for university officials who want to put the whole business behind them as quickly as they can.

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While he may not have been aggressive about getting to the bottom of things once he was informed that there was something "wrong" going on, he did report it to his superiors, who also failed to take action. He should have done more—and he would probably agree were he still around and able to do so—but he is not solely culpable for what went on nor is there any evidence that he was the author of the cover up. Yet the NCAA penalties fall heavily on him and on his memory, as well as on the students currently involved in the Penn State football program who still may end up losing eligibility and scholarship support, rather than on the university officials involved, which is where it belongs.

Not only is Coach Paterno being singled out unfairly for criticism, the millions of dollars involved in the sanctions imposed on Penn State are troubling. It is not enough to redress the evils committed—no dollar amount is sufficient—but it has raised the bar considerably for the next time something like this happens. It has made the whole business terribly expensive going forward, which may be internalized in academia as even more of a reason to cover things up in the future rather than coming clean as soon as "inappropriate behavior" is uncovered. People like Sandusky are rarely caught the first time they abuse a child or the second or the third. This kind of abuse can go on for years before someone catches on. The idea that the penalties will be even bigger next time is not an incentive for candor.

In the rush to punish Penn State, the NCAA may have set precedents that it and every college and university may soon come to regret.

  • Read Susan Milligan: Penn State Deserved What It Got
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