I've spent a lot of my life studying revolutions -- but there's really only two things I can say about them for sure. First, somebody's statue -- for better or worse -- always comes down. Second, in the end most of them fail. (Even the American Revolution?...the jury is still out.) This afternoon -- true story -- I was almost at my 8th and Market stop on the subway, blasting "1971 Hits" on Pandora and trying to collect my thoughts about the latest outrages at Penn State, as well as Joe Paterno and that darn statue, when The Who's Pete Townshend windmilled the first power chord of "Won't Get Fooled Again."
"Meet the new boss," Roger Daltrey wailed. "Same as the old boss." Too perfect for Penn State's latest debacle? Maybe...maybe not. True, "the change, it had to come" to State College, after the shockwaves of 2011 when we learned not only about the serial child-sex crimes of former PSU top football assistant Jerry Sandusky, but the powerful evidence of a cover-up that spanned more than a decade, at least, and allegedly included top officials up to the university president, the athletic director, and the iconic (literally, for once) Paterno.
But the Penn State "revolution"...never really was. That removal of the massive, 7-foot-tall Paterno statue outside PSU's Beaver Stadium was never really an indictment of the Nittany Lions' once-revered coach and his alleged failure to act when he learned in 2001 that an assistant had apparently seen Sandusky raping a child in a campus locker room shower. It was just one more desperate ploy to make the unspeakable reality -- not just the stain of a national child-sex-abuse, but the wider moral rot of the institution where it took place -- go away.
The then-interim Penn State president, Rodney Erickson, had workers pull the statue in the pre-dawn gloaming of a sleepy July 2012 Sunday, then he issued a wishy-washy statement that called the sculpted work "a lightning rod of controversy and national debate, including the role of big-time sports in university life."
That was literally days after Sandusky had been convicted on 45 felony counts of sexually abusing boys, and with criminal charges against other top officials, including Erickson's predecessor Graham Spanier, up in the air (as they remain today). The truth is that there never really would be that debate about "the role of big-time sports in university life" in that place they call Happy Valley. Instead, the effort to restore that role to the unquestioned glory of the Paterno era -- the counter-revolution, if you will -- was well underway.
In the four years since Sandusky's conviction and the removal of the Paterno statue, the public focus at Penn State has always been less about acknowledging the most shameful chapter in the school's history, and more about getting the football program restored to its lofty former heights. Even the most admirable thing to come from the ashes of the scandal -- the funding of programs for child-sex abuse, including a Penn State Center for the Protection of Children -- became tangled to some degree in the football program's successful push to get back into year-end bowl games as soon as possible. (The $60 million fine levied on PSU by the NCAA, after a bitter court fight, will finally go to anti-child-sex-abuse programs; again, Erickson had spun the levy not as the right thing to do but as the NCAA wanting "blood" -- something the university had to agree to, to avoid the "death penalty" for the football program.
Erickson also launched the narrative that -- forgetting about the school officials who were allegedly looking the other way -- that this was just a Jerry Sandusky scandal and "not a Penn State scandal." It was what the modern American university does best: PR. The post-2001 wins by Paterno -- who died of lung cancer in early 2012 -- were restored by the NCAA. In a secret location in central Pennsylvania, two artists now work on a new Paterno statue -- with a raised fist of defiance. Meanwhile, with little fanfare, Penn State's attorneys were reaching settlements with 26 alleged victims for nearly $60 million -- payments that surely brought some solace to the abused, but also seemed to ensure the full story of how the university improperly dealt with a monster on its campus would stay sealed.
That effort collapsed last week, thanks to a once-obscure court case by Penn State's insurer challenging who is liable for those payments. In court filings, it was revealed that one child victim of Sandusky said he took his claim directly to Paterno in 1976, a full quarter-century earlier than the coach supposedly first heard about the assistant's proclivities. Other evidence said that Sandusky's sex-abuse was discussed among other Penn State coaches in the late 1980s. Before the week was out, Sara Ganim -- who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her Sandusky scoops in the Harrisburg Patriot-News and now reports for CNN -- had the credible tale of a Sandusky accuser who claims he was warned away by the matter by Paterno and another man way back in 1971.
Eric Barron, who replaced Erickson as Penn State's president, immediately issued a powerful apology to these victims and vowed to redouble the university's efforts...OK, who am I kidding here? In reality, Barron came out with only token remorse for victims and certainly no promise that the entire Sandusky cover-up story will ever be bared. Instead, he said that Penn State had no evidence of wrongdoing by Paterno and other coaches and school officials (how could it, since it didn't seem to look very hard?) and he then took the 21st Century coward's way out, blaming everything on the media.
"Unfortunately, we can't control the 24/7 news cycle, and the tendency of some individuals in social media and the blogosphere to rush to judgment," Barron said. "But I have had enough of the continued trial of the institution in various media. We have all had enough. . . . I am appalled."
Left unsaid was that without the work of intrepid reporters like Ganim, Sandusky's sins might have stayed buried forever -- the way that too many at PSU apparently wanted it. Barron even took the lowest possible road of lashing out, indirectly, at victims, stating that some of the allegations -- allegations, let's remember, that for the most part Penn State chose to settle with payouts rather than contest -- are "clearly incredulous, and should be difficult for any reasonable person to believe."
I'm appalled, too, at Barron's callousness toward the victims of one of society's worst crimes imaginable, and his refusal, as the leader of Penn State, to look more closely in the mirror. Appalled, but not surprised. Some of us had feared the worse about Barron when the then-president of Florida State University was hired in 2014 to run PSU -- right as The New York Times was faulting his administration for improperly handling rape allegations against FSU's then-star quarterback Jameis Winston. (Around the same time, Penn State was bringing in a new football coach, James Franklin, whose actions in a rape case against four of his players at Vanderbilt were also raising questions. Neither Barron nor Franklin were formally charged with wrongdoing but...is this really the post-Sandusky look that Penn State is going for?)
How quaint, the idea that America's universities are bastions of openness, transparency, and freewheeling debate. Not in the era of U.S. News rankings, keeping up the application level...anything to salvage "the brand." Look at California's UC-Davis, whose president just got rightfully slammed for authorizing $175,000 to try to make an embarrassing pepper-spray incident disappear from the Internet. At Penn State, however, the brand is larded with the odor of rotting pigskin.
Again, Penn State has taken some positive actions in the wake of Sanduskygate; it would be beyond shocking if nothing had been done. But Barron's tone deafness over the weekend made clear that any talk of changing the warped culture of Happy Valley -- the real change that was needed -- was nothing more than empty words. Five years of heartache at Penn State -- at a cost of tens of millions of dollars -- and it's clear the university had learned absolutely nothing. Zilch. Nada.