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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

Tarnished images, damaged brands and spectacularly bad decisions: the lessons of Penn State

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Louis Freeh's damning report on the way Penn State in general and four of it's most prominent leaders in particular handled the Jerry Sandusky situation is yet another example of "institutional failure" in which organizations lose their moral compass and make decisions meant, putting it bluntly, to cover asses.

In the case of the Nitany Lions, Jerry Sandusky, the recently dead coach Joe Paterno and other members of the school's athletic  department, it's one of those rare cases where the cover-up IS certainly as bad as the crime.

Some, like Paterno's family or former PSU standout Matt Millen, are defending JoPa.   The coach can't speak for himself, and his statue still stands on campus, where so many things bear his name, his likeness, or are there because of what he did during his reign.  If nothing else, it might be time for all of us to reconsider our occasional rush to deify people via graven images, newly renamed streets and such.

Institutions are supposed to protect us, or at least do what's right.  Yes, they're made of mortals and they make mistakes, but usually there's one right-thinking person who emerges when a case of really bad group-think sets in.  What makes the Penn State situation all the more jaw-dropping is that so many otherwise smart, savvy men did precisely the wrong thing, even when the facts were clear, the patterns established and the correct choice was obvious.

College sports is big money, and the Free report proves the men in charge at PSU decided to protect the Nitany Lions brand instead of blowing the whistle on an obvious child predator who used his position to find and cultivate new victims.

The NCAA, which likes to sell itself as the keeper of all that's virtuous when it comes to student athletes, has a checkered record when it comes to dealing out punishments for matters as mundane as recruiting violations, overzealous alumni or shoes purchased by athletes of a certain state university.   How will it handle this unthinkable moral and ethical porcupine? 

NBC's Bob Costas says the NCAA might shut the football program down--a death sentence, perhaps for a season or two.   Civil suits will be filed.  Appeals will be made.   The billable hours for attorneys will be astronomical.

Classes will resume at Penn State this fall, and life will go on in Happy Valley where a community has to come to grips about what it knew, when it knew it, and why no one said anything.   As all that soul-searching happens, there's a statue that still stands on campus, a silent tribute to a man who brought PSU incredible fame, prestige and money.   And, who failed the institution in spectacularly awful fashion.

In the course of trying to protect the Nitany Lions brand, Paterno and the others are guilty of irreparable harm to the very brand they so wrong-headedly tried to defend all while exposing more and more innocent kids to a monster in their midst.

Institutional failure, indeed.


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