The exhaustive and highly credible investigation by Louis J. Freeh into the abhorrent mess at Penn State University failed in only one regard -- by neglecting to name college football fans as coconspirators.

All of us who buy tickets, fund multimillion-dollar athletic facilities and boost TV ratings for college football share some of the responsibility for creating the culture that allowed Joe Paterno to exert total control over an otherwise fine university. That unfettered power, in turn, allowed Jerry Sandusky to abuse young boys for more than a decade after Paterno and his fawning "superiors" became aware that the assistant football coach was a sexual predator.

Football was too important at Penn State. The reputation of a long-admired program was at stake. Paterno was a revered figure in college sports. And the arms race for recruits, stadiums and bowl games was only intensifying as the Sandusky affair played out over the years. Penn State had to keep up, so enabling a pedophile became an institutional goal.

That arms race is funded by us, the fans of college football, although we'd rather not admit it. We're guilty, too. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has used this space to advocate for public financing for TCF Bank Stadium and to support a controversial contract for an outgoing athletic director to raise more money for sports. We want winning teams in Minnesota, too, and we're willing to pay for them.

We'll also continue to rail against corruption in college sports, and we share the nation's revulsion over the Sandusky case, but we'd really love to see our Gophers in Pasadena one of these years -- with strong student-athlete graduation rates and a clean NCAA record, of course.

At the very least, those who support college athletics should see in the Penn State tragedy an opportunity for introspection. Those who won't admit that there's a connection between our national infatuation with big-time sports and the scandals that continue to plague otherwise credible academic institutions are blind to the fact that power and money often corrupt.

Just read Freeh's report. Those in top leadership positions at Penn State showed a "total and consistent disregard" for the welfare of children "in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity." Penn State had become a multimillion-dollar brand -- and Paterno an icon -- because of success on the football field and a carefully cultivated reputation for cleanliness. But that was before the locker room became a crime scene.

The NCAA is reviewing Freeh's report, and its top official has said a "death penalty" shutdown of the Penn State football program has not been ruled out. The NCAA will determine whether the school lost institutional control over its athletic program and violated ethics rules. Based on Sandusky's conviction and Freeh's report, that decision should be clear-cut.

Freeh concluded that Penn State's most important challenge would be to change the culture that permitted Sandusky's behavior. How can that possibly happen if the NCAA fails to levy its harshest penalty? Here's a sign of how difficult it will be for Penn State to move forward: The school's new leaders are still debating whether to remove the bronze statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium.

Penn State President Rodney Erickson wouldn't say this week whether the school deserves the death penalty. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves here," he said, no doubt hoping the NCAA won't go that far when clearly it should.

Any NCAA sanctions short of the death penalty would do little to change the culture at Penn State, and would only send the wrong signal to coaches and administrators at other schools who would rather look the other way when ethical institutional control over athletics is most needed.

An unflinching response from the NCAA might also remind the unnamed coconspirators in the Sandusky case -- all of us who support major college athletics -- that we must demand more than winning records and bowl games from those who are supposed to be educating our nation's future leaders.


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