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Saturday, July 14, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 p.m.

Bud Withers
Penn State, Joe Paterno were busy protecting themselves in Sandusky case

By Bud Withers
Seattle Times colleges reporter

The corrosion of academic ideals by college athletic departments has long been a sore subject around the ivy-covered walls, and today, we have the most stunning example of it:

A statue at Penn State of a football coach who enabled a child predator.

Joe Paterno's legacy took a lethal hit Thursday, as did his school, Penn State, with the release of a searing, 267-page internal report headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh. The waffling, the posturing, the conspiring — things we suspected in this Jerry Sandusky mess but perhaps couldn't quite get our arms around — were laid out in black-and-white sentences.

The report concluded there was a "total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims ... these men concealed Sandusky's activities."

And yes, Freeh made it clear at a news conference: That included the iconic Paterno, who, wrestling with a reported Sandusky incident in 2001, decided against immediate notification of his bosses because he "didn't want to interfere with their weekends."

How could this happen? Well, one of the great American ethics is Covering Your Backside, and it's practiced on campus as earnestly as in other walks of society. Don't take personal accountability. Don't do the right thing. By all means, the facade is what's most important, even if the collateral damage is helpless children whose world was collapsing around them.

The late Paterno, ex-president Graham Spanier and the two other high-ranking Penn State officials seemed in the report to find comfort in the cover-up by the fact their co-conspirators were comfortable, too. The bar was set only so high.

Nobody seemed to grasp what a massive moral failure they were perpetrating. One of them broached, in written notes, the possibility of "the opening of Pandora's box" — back in 1998, 13 years before the Sandusky allegations became public.

More than a decade ago, they wrote of a "humane" way out in dealing with Sandusky. Maybe it was because he was real and the kids he was abusing were faceless.

Or maybe it was because of JoePa, and the monolithic Penn State football program. The report noted "a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community."

Today, every college president and athletic director ought to be wondering: Could it happen here? And if they're at an institution where football is more important than the engineering department, there's a greater likelihood the answer is yes.

You think of all the scandals in college history — the lawlessness of the old Southwest Conference, $100 handshakes from rich oilmen, the perpetual murkiness around the SEC — and nothing comes close to this. Penn State just struck the top of the shame meter.

Yet I don't see this as something the NCAA, everybody's whipping boy, should act on. Its president, Mark Emmert, wants more information from Penn State.

But institutional control, one of the bedrock concepts in the NCAA manual, is about checks in place to ensure that rules are followed. It isn't about moral compasses and legal responsibilities. If you were somehow to apply an NCAA penalty to the void of leadership at Penn State, you'd give the Nittany Lions a 75-year bowl ban.

To try to measure Penn State's transgressions against some school that made excessive phone calls to recruits seems silly and superfluous, even to the point of trivializing what happened at State College. Penn State is answering to higher authorities now, to law enforcement and to a collective conscience that failed it so miserably.

One passage of Freeh's report is telling. It infers that the powerful at Penn State did what they did "to avoid the consequences of bad publicity."

To which, there's only one question to ask: How do you like your publicity now?

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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