Glass Houses of the Big Ten

This isn’t really the appropriate place for me to publish this article. It’s not about the Twins or baseball at all. But it’s the best outlet I have available to me to utilize to get my opinions out there and on the record, so this is the outlet I’ve chosen. If you’re only interested in what may or may not happen with the Twins and their roster, please scroll down… I’ve written plenty on that subject lately… or you can check out any of the other fine Twins blogs we list over to the right hand column .

But here, today, I’m going to write about the mess at Penn State University.

Workers remove Joe Paterno statue Sunday morning (Photo: AP/Centre Daily Times, Christopher Weddle)

I’m not going to pile on to Penn State. The NCAA’s sanctions, announced Monday morning, are unprecedented and stand as testament enough to the egregiousness of the situation. I’m certainly not going to make excuses for Joe Paterno or anyone else connected with the University. I really have no opinion whatsoever concerning whether Paterno’s statue should have remained standing outside the PSU football stadium.

If, like me, you happen to be a big fan of another Big Ten or other major college football program, I humbly suggest that you consider whether you really want to get too high and mighty on this topic either. I’m afraid many of our houses contain far too much glass for us to be casting stones.

Instead, I’m simply going to suggest that every college president and, for that matter, every college football fan, review the recommendations that were part of the report issued by former FBI director Louis Freeh and his firm concerning their investigation of PSU’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky matter.

I read through the entire Freeh report and I couldn’t help but wonder if the environment at Penn State is really all that different than what exists in many, if not most, colleges and universities with high visibility athletic programs.  This was an environment which allowed for Sandusky to continue preying on boys for more than a decade after initial allegations of his perversions were raised, largely because the values placed on sports… in this case major college football. The power placed in to the hands of a revered coach skewed an entire community’s sense of right and wrong.

The men who allowed Sandusky’s evil to go unreported for so long were not, as far as I can tell, bad men. I’m certain they all knew right from wrong. Strictly from an NCAA rules standpoint, all indications are that Penn State’s President, Athletics Director and Head Football Coach ran clean programs. The assistant coaches performed their jobs well and within the NCAA rules, from all appearances. I believe that if any of these people witnessed or even had knowledge of similar atrocities going on at their local YMCA, they’d have called authorities immediately. But sometimes otherwise good people make really bad decisions and often it’s because the subculture that they’re wrapped up in has been allowed to evolve to the point where the mores within that environment are inconsistent with (if not outright contrary to) the rest of society.

That seems clearly to have been the case at Penn State. Everyone… from the janitors to the President of the University to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees…  believed that the PSU football subculture, and the man leading it, were subject to different rules than everyone else. In fact, that dynamic was so ingrained in the fiber of the entire community that there’s almost no indication whatsoever that anyone even considered for a moment that the decision path they embarked upon was “wrong.”

As I read the report, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if the people at PSU handled this situation so much differently than their peers at other campuses would have.

I’d like to hope the people running the University of Iowa would have immediately stepped up and put an end to anything remotely approaching the crimes Sandusky is guilty of. But don’t ask me to bet a year’s pay on it. I’m just not that sure how the U of I and the Hawkeye faithful would have reacted in similar circumstances to those at Penn State. I wish I was more certain. And the fact that I believe the Hawkeyes, today, run as clean a program as anyone in big-time college sports should tell you about how certain I am that most other schools would have done the right thing.

How can we know? How can we be comfortable trusting the people that run our big-time colleges and universities to prevent anything similar to the mess at Penn State from happening on our favorite campuses?

It’s times like these that I bemoan the state of journalism in this country. There was a time, not all that long ago, when the publication of something like the Freeh Report would be met with a mad scramble of investigative journalists anxious to look in to whether the local big-time college has an environment similar to that which Freeh blamed Penn State for tolerating.

Is the Cedar Rapids Gazette investigating Iowa? Are the Star-Tribune and Pioneer-Press going to battle over who can do the best job of looking in to Goldie Gopher’s closets? What about the Detroit Free Press or the Chicago Tribune or the Columbus Dispatch? In fairness, it’s probably too soon to criticize any of those fine publications for not bothering to ask questions of the local U leaders, but I’m not holding my breath until I read something, either.

Maybe bloggers should take up the challenge. It’s not likely, since most of us exist primarily because we’re among the most rabid fans of whatever sports team(s) we focus on with our blogging. But if we’re collectively at least somewhat responsible for the sorry state of the newspaper industry and investigative journalism, in particular, then maybe we should at least try.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with the questions to ask. The Freeh Report did the research for us. All we have to do is look at Freeh’s recommendations and ask every other college with a big-time athletics program if they’ve already implemented something resembling those recommendations.

Given the state of investigative journalism today, however, I’m not sure it will happen. That said, an investigative journalist in Pennsylvania played a significant role in shining a bright light on Penn State. As you can imagine, the Penn State community did not react positively to that writer’s efforts. Likewise, any journalist with the courage to take on any other major football program can expect to be similarly criticized, if not ostracized.

Who will step up and ask those questions at Iowa… at Minnesota… at Michigan and Wisconsin?

The recommendations in the Freeh report are reasonable. They are, among other things, intended to assure that the kind of influence Joe Paterno had at Penn State is never again allowed to be bestowed on coach. The NCAA has mandated that Penn State accept and implement those recommendations. 

But why stop there?

Why shouldn’t EVERY university with a significant athletics program also be required by the NCAA to adopt the recommendations? If the purpose is to prevent the previous toxic environment at Penn State from ever being repeated there, shouldn’t we also want to prevent it from existing elsewhere? Do we REALLY think Penn State under Joe Paterno was so different than anywhere else?

I wish I believed that, but I don’t. Nor do I believe the NCAA has the backbone to tell Alabama and Ohio State they have to abide by the Freeh recommendations.

The Big Ten is getting a black eye in all of this, too, because PSU is a member of that organization. The conference has long crowed about how it’s more than just an athletic conference… it’s focus is also on higher education. It likes to talk about how its member institutions must meet higher standards than schools in other conferences.

Maybe it’s time to prove it.

Maybe the Big Ten should stand up and say, “Our member institutions will ALL be expected to comply with the recommendations in the Freeh report within two years or face penalties similar to those the NCAA imposed on Penn State.” Now that would get the attention of a few University presidents… and their football coaches.

God willing, we’ll never see another situation on a campus as vile as that which Jerry Sandusky and those who enabled him at Penn State are responsible for. But I’m as certain as I can be that the environment that allowed that situation to occur was not unique to Penn State and, unless someone stands up and demands that other campuses also be reviewed, Penn State will not be the last institution brought to its knees by such an environment.

The NCAA won’t do the right thing and impose Freeh’s recommendations on all programs, but the Big Ten should. And if they won’t, someone should ask Jim Delany and the member presidents to go on the record and explain why not.

– JC

UPDATE: As was predictable and likely appropriate, the Big Ten has added its own additional penalties upon Penn State. The penalties involve censure, lack of eligibility for the Conference Championship game (which was a no-brainer, since they aren’t eligible for bowl play) and loss of their share of bowl revenue for four years. I still believe the BIG presidents should turn their attention to their own glass houses, rather than simply pile on Penn State.