It's becoming very evident that sexual abuse of children is the great equalizer in exposing the corruption of the various cultures that infect our most revered institutions.
Whether it's the Catholic church, youth sports and other activities, or, now, college athletics, there's one common bond that unites all of them: officials have, for years, looked the other way, when it came to the perhaps the most heinous crime adults can commit: preying on innocent children.
Not only have they looked the other way, they've -- either tacitly or overtly -- allowed such behavior to flourish. How else do you explain Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston sliding known sex-offending priests from parish to parish instead of, at the very least, kicking them out of the priesthood. And how else would you explain Joe Paterno, perhaps the prototype "old coach," who enabled his erstwhile assistant, Jerry Sandusky, to continue to allegedly molest young boys long after he was apprised of the crime?
Paterno, who easily had more power at Penn State than even the president of the university (remember, we're talking about the culture of college football, where the old coach is akin to God himself), conveniently followed a chain of command he (and any coach) would have surely ignored under any other circumstances and told his athletic director of what he'd learned (through a graduate assistant) about Sandusky.
(Let's not forget, too, that at one time Sandusky was Joe Pa's trusted aide de camp and heir apparent.)
If this tragic episode doesn't bring squarely into focus the depth of the cesspool that is 21st century college athletics, I don't know what does. This isn't just an indictment against Paterno. Because while it's easy to say that a more enlightened coach might have reacted differently and gone to the authorities as soon as he learned about Sandusky's alleged acts, nobody knows that for sure. In fact, if anyone were to ask me, I'd say just the opposite. It's my guess that no big-time college coach would want his program blown up for any reason, no matter how serious. We are talking about the most golden of the golden geese here.
College football (and basketball too) brings millions of dollars to the universities that allow these systems to flourish. These are the ultimate fatted calves. Much of the economy in the communities where these universities reside base their economies on the tourism that their games create. Travel through South Bend, Indiana, sometime and you'll understand. It is a one-horse town with the University of Notre Dame sitting squarely in the middle of it. Five, six times a fall, people from all over the country descend on South Bend and vicinity, stay in the hotels, eat at the restaurants. And then they do it all over again in the winter with basketball.
It's no different in a place like Happy Valley, PA, or Ann Arbor, Michigan, or even Lincoln, Nebraska (certainly more diverse than Happy Valley, but the Cornhuskers are huge there, too).
So when something like this happens, heinous though it is, the first reaction is "we have to be careful here. One false move and we kill the golden goose."
It's no different than Cardinal Law shuffling pedophile priests around the archdiocese of Boston rather than allowing the proper authorities to handle these situations right away.
In this sense, Paterno -- as the head of the program -- is every bit as guilty as the other Penn State officials who were fired early this week of enabling Jerry Sandusky and ignoring his alleged victims. Does anybody really believe that Joe Paterno, winningest coach in NCAA football history, the man who would have, as of Saturday, coached more games than any other man in college football history, didn't have the authority to call the police if he saw, or even heard of, any possible misconduct on the part of Jerry Sandusky? This is what his defenders keep saying. It wasn't his job to deal with university investigations. That was the athletic director's job.
But the problem here isn't simply Paterno, and it isn't simply this particular case involving Jerry Sandusky, alleged pedophile. It's much bigger, and much sadder.
Look around. You will see, from coast to coast, systematic abuses of power at these schools, systematic rules violations, and systematic attempts by the coaches and the higher-ups, to cover up the transgressions. The fact that most of them involve recruiting violations doesn't really matter here. It's a culture that says winning, going to bowl games, and maximizing the revenue potential big-time college sports makes possible is more important that anything else. And that includes the welfare of minors unconscionably violated and exploited (allegedly!) by the likes of Jerry Sandusky.
And let us not forget something else. The second any of these allegations became public knowledge, what we saw Wednesday in the midnight firing of Paterno would have happened then, too. This is how these things work. Once the snowball starts rolling down the hill, it doesn't stop until it's picked up speed, grown in size, and trampled everything in its path. You wait. Herman Cain is toast too. He just doesn't know it yet. It's unfathomable to me that he doesn't, but that seems to be the case.
So isn't it a fair question to ask whether Joe Pa, upon hearing from his graduate assistant that his trusted assistant and friend was diddling kids in the shower, had a panicky eye on his legacy? Anyone who hangs around the game until he's 84, the way Paterno has, has to have an ego big enough to put himself ahead of just about everything else, regardless of what kind of an act he's putting on. Look at what a project it became to get Bobby Bowden out of Florida State.
Something tells me Joe Pa wasn't anxious to risk losing it all, so instead of blowing the whistle and diming Sandusky out (which would have put his entire program under a microscope and, quite possibly, cost him his job eight years sooner, before he ever got the chance to set all these records), he kicked the thing upstairs. He followed "procedure."
But then, he allowed Sandusky back onto the premises, even after he allegely knew of the accusations against the man. How do you do that? At the very least, I'd have thought he'd say to Sandusky "you're not allowed in here, ever. Maybe I can't nail you on something I've never seen you do, and maybe I'm hoping against hope that my assistant didn't see what he thought he saw. But dammit, Jerry, something went on in there and I don't want you in here."
But he didn't.
And that's unforgivable.
So when I see on TV an enraged group of Penn State students (most of them young men) kicking up a storm over Paterno's firing, I can only shake my head and wonder. Is the athletic prestige of the school worth more than its overall reputation as a safe place? Is it that important?
Or, more to the point, is Penn State's No.1 commodity college football? Does its importance in the overall academic scheme of things have more to do with bowl games and money raised than, say, cancer research?
Sadly we all know the answer to these questions. And that just brings me back to the beginning. This is an indictment against the corrupt culture that governs big-time college athletics as much as it is a scathing reflection on Joe Paterno and the people at Penn State who, rather than working toward putting an alleged sexual predator behind bars, tried instead to wish it away in order to preserve a legacy that, in hindsight, it didn't deserve anyway.