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Penn State coach Joe Paterno is carried off the field by his players after getting his 400th collegiate win over Northwestern 38-21 in an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

Editorial: How many looked away at Penn State?

  • Article by: EDITORIAL
  • Star Tribune
  • November 7, 2011 - 6:28 PM

"Happy Valley" has seen happier days.

For decades, Penn State University's legendary football program has been an emblem of excellence in college sports and the envy of schools unable to achieve the mythical status of Nittany Lions teams and their coach-for-life, Joe Paterno.

But dark clouds began rolling in last Saturday when the man once considered the likely successor to the 84-year-old Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested and charged with 40 counts of sexually abusing young boys over a 15-year period, from 1994 to 2009.

Some of the alleged assaults took place in hotels the night before Penn State games, others in the team's shower rooms. They included fondling and oral and anal sex, according to grand jury testimony.

Aside from Sandusky, who left the football program in 1999 but somehow retained access to Penn State athletic facilities, two high-ranking university officials were charged with perjury in what appears to be a cover-up scheme.

Athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, who oversaw the campus police department, knew about Sandusky's crimes but failed to report them, and then lied about them to investigators, according to law enforcement officials.

As for Paterno, he's not considered a target of the ongoing investigation. State Attorney General Linda Kelly said the coach fulfilled his legal obligation in the matter. When a graduate assistant coach told him he had witnessed Sandusky assaulting a young boy in the team showers in 2002, Paterno reported it to Curley.

What's astonishing, however, is Paterno's apparent lack of curiosity about why nothing apparently happened in the investigation for nine years. Maybe Paterno's legal obligation did end in 2002, as the state attorney general suggests.

But his moral obligation continued in the years that followed as Sandusky, according to the grand jury report, continued to assault young boys. Perhaps it's time, after 46 years on the job, for Paterno to retire.

"If this is true, we were all fooled," the coach said on Sunday, as if to excuse his behavior. It's more likely that he was fooling himself.

Minnesotans can't really imagine the magnitude of what's unfolding at Penn State. In modern times, they've never experienced the glow of a dynastic football or basketball powerhouse. They don't know the cultlike aura that can surround Alabama or Oklahoma football or Duke or Kentucky basketball.

Penn State's story was more dramatic than most. Under Paterno, its football rise coincided with the tragic decline of the surrounding Rust Belt. For people whose communities were falling apart, as steel mills closed and mines played out, Happy Valley emerged as an emotional escape and a rare point of pride and glory.

The names of the Penn State players changed, but the generic uniforms and Paterno himself were stuck in time. The Nittany Lions were one thing a person could count on.

Well, maybe not quite. Penn State's tragic fumble is just another reminder that college sports -- with all its conference-shuffling, money-chasing and media adulation -- has lost its way.

No institution, no matter how fabled, no matter how insulated, is above the law. This is more than a garden-variety cheating and influence scandal of the sort that has rocked Ohio State and Miami in recent months.

As Pennsylvania officials detailed yesterday, these were "horrific crimes against children," crimes that "scar children for life."

Authorities described Sandusky as a classic sexual predator who followed a well-worn path: establish a charity for at-risk kids, ply them with favors and gifts, impress them with access to (in this case) big-time sports, then demand sexual favors in return.

To look the other way, to pretend that all of this might not have happened, to convince yourself that a football program is more important than abused children ... this is fantasy of the worst sort.

A few misguided officials at Penn State have followed the sad example of the bishops of a loftier institution that engaged in similar fantasies -- the Catholic Church. The doctrine of that church, by the way, states that humans err not only by what they do -- but what they fail to do.

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