For nearly half a century, Penn State football has been the model for how to run a successful — and clean — college sports program. And coach Joe Paterno has been its leader, revered in all quarters not only for winning games but for his virtuous, fatherly leadership.
That all changed this week, with the arrest of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on 40 criminal counts related to the alleged sexual abuse of minors. In addition, two top university officials have been charged with perjury and failing to report allegations to police.
And, on Wednesday, the iconic Paterno succumbed: At age 84 and admittedly devastated over his role in the scandal, he announced that he will retire at season's end. After 46 seasons, the man whose statue stands outside the football stadium will depart in disgrace.
How could this have happened in a place known as Happy Valley?
The university has launched its own investigation, but not before the scandal triggered a wave of criticism on the insular internal culture at Penn State, the flagship public university in Pennsylvania. One concern — which could next force the exit of the school's president, Graham Spanier — is whether the school chose to protect its prestigious brand instead of following a law requiring accusations of sexual abuse to be brought to police.
Shades Of The Catholic Church Scandal
"This is strikingly and sadly identical to the decisions made by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church — that is, the bishop or religious superior making decisions to protect the reputation of the church at the peril of the children," said Minnesota-based attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented numerous victims of sexual abuse, including cases against Catholic dioceses across the nation.
"This is also egregious because they are educators. It's mandated in the courts since the 1970s that educators are mandated reporters — they are supposed to report any accusations to authorities," he said.
Others have drawn the same comparison. Both Penn State and the Catholic Church are hallowed institutions that are parochial in practice and culture, protected images built on moral values, and are led mostly by men. And both tried to handle suspected pedophiles internally, ultimately failing in the process.
Authorities say Sandusky assaulted boys over a span of 15 years, during which time the school was alerted about multiple alleged incidents.
A grand jury report says Penn State investigated Sandusky in 1998 and that Sandusky admitted wrongdoing, but the inquiry went no further. The report also said an assistant coach in 2002 told Paterno that he'd witnessed Sandusky having sex with a young boy in the team's locker room shower. Paterno told his boss, athletic director Tim Curley, who described the alleged incident as "horsing around," according to the report. Curley didn't contact police.
Paterno has been roundly criticized for not also referring the allegations directly to police, though authorities have determined that Paterno didn't have a legal obligation to do so.
But Curley did. That's why he, along with Gary Schultz, the senior vice president for finance and business, have been charged in the case.
"This is a case about a sexual predator accused of using his position within the community and the university to prey on young boys over a decade," Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said at a news conference Monday. "Those officials and administrators to whom it was reported did not report [incidents] to police ... Their inaction likely allowed a child predator to continue to victimize children for many, many years."
Lawyers for both Curley and Schultz have said their clients are innocent of the allegations.
The high stakes surrounding Penn State football make the disclosure of such allegations all the more difficult, experts say. University of Massachusetts psychologist David Lisak, who specializes in treating victims of sexual abuse, said the shock of such revelations can be powerful enough to stifle a potential whistle-blower.
"Sometimes it's very difficult for individuals in power to accept that a person they may know personally, or as part of the faculty or church, could be committing these very serious crimes," Lisak said. "That's why we have these mandatory reporting laws — because we know sometimes people will make bad decisions, and we don't want them having to make a judgment call.
"But, unfortunately, institutions get into damage control mode, and they lose their moral center."
'Its Own Kingdom'
It's difficult to exaggerate the significance of Penn State and its football program. The school has numerous campuses across the state, with more than 80,000 students in all. It's also one of the state's largest employers.
Penn State's Nittany Lions cast an imprint across the nation. Paterno has won more games than any other football coach at Division I schools, including two national championships.
The team's games often are a major draw on national television, and the broadcasting deals, along with bowl appearances, are a big piece of $72 million in yearly revenue that the school collects from football. The program's popularity has helped build Penn State's endowment to more than $1 billion.
"I think everybody has felt that football has been its own kingdom within this small town. There are tall walls around the football program," said Neil Rudel, managing editor of the Altoona Mirror newspaper in Altoona, Pa. Rudel graduated from Penn State and has covered the football team since 1977.
State College, home of Penn State's main campus, has a population of just 42,000, but it more than doubles for Saturday games at Beaver Stadium, a massive structure that seats more than 108,000.
"It becomes like the third-biggest city in Pennsylvania on game day. The average commute for fans is two hours each way," Rudel says. "They have built a mega-monster here."