Two Saturdays ago, Joe Paterno topped off his NCAA Division I record-setting 409th career victory, coming midway through his 45th season at Penn State. Penn State had last won a football game without Paterno on staff in the 1940s. Paterno compared favorably with the greatest coaches on record: two national titles and three Big 10 championships (in just 20 years in the league) to go along with five undefeated seasons and all of those victories. And yet in one week, Paterno could not hold his job at 8-1 Penn State, justifiably forced to leave amid a swirl of backlash following his apathetic role in the alleged molestation cases carried out by an assistant coach. Although Paterno reported the incidents according to his legal duty, critics contend that his failure to act assertively may have enabled the molestations to continue.
The fall of Paterno is a stain on what had been one of the most honorable figures in college sports history. Paterno seemingly stood for integrity amid a college game slowly losing all sense of principle. But in reality, it should hardly have come as such a shock. Sure, there are upstanding figures in Division I college sports. But the time has come to assume the opposite, to expect the worst.
Well-connected writers from organizations like Yahoo! have repeatedly warned the public that the college game – mainly football, but other sports to a lesser extent – has become in many ways a farce.
The schools on probation are not the ones that cheat, but rather, the ones that get caught.
No one – except Paterno – really knows why he chose to look the other way. It is possible he did not believe the allegations – although that fails to explain his refusal to act – but the desire for prestige could have played a role as well. These actions of a long-time friend, proficient coach and a face of the Paterno era would understandably paralyze Paterno; the release of these details to the public would jeopardize his image. So it is very possible that Paterno chose to look the other way because that was easier. Penn State football would continue to roll on, he would retire among the all-time legends, and he would never have to face the possibility that he may have enabled one of the more repulsive of crimes to continue.
It’s not that Paterno is necessarily a bad person; it’s more that he, and the rest of the big-market college sports world, has a misplaced sense of priorities. Ideally, the possibility of these events would spur an immediate investigation and make the protection of the victims most prominent in the minds of the school administration. But just as it is easier for colleges not to investigate payments of recruits and not punish athletes for unacceptable behavior, it was easier for Paterno and Penn State to look the other way. It’s an unfortunate reality, but big-money college sports has lost its integrity.