Winders: Penn State offers lessons for us all

There are weeks when I am glad she is too young to understand. This was one of them.

I consider myself lucky my daughter does not require explanations from me on the horrors of the world. Not yet anyway. For now, I am happy to let her watch Elmo and play in the fall leaves, as I have no idea how I would have explained the happenings at Penn State University last week.

Understand, I am not one of these people who think every ill of the world needs to be broken down into child-sized portions for consumption. It can be a dirty place, and not everything needs an explanation for the youngest among us.

But when the victims of a particular event are children, then I think we owe them fair warning.

Last week, Penn State football defensive co-ordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested after a grand jury indicted him on multiple sexual abuse charges. In the days that followed, the sickening charges were almost eclipsed by the depth of the conspiracy to protect him, his team and the institution. They were the sort of plot twists which, if inserted into the first draft of a script, would eventually be rewritten because of their weak believability.

So, how do you explain not only the sexual abuse, which seems almost too weak a phrase for systematic child rape, but a decade’s worth of organization-wide conspiracy and personal moral indifference?

In recent days, Penn State has been backpedaling faster than a Russian bear circus act. Somehow, a week’s worth of faux sympathy for the victims rings a bit empty after a decade-plus of indifference and a campuswide riot in defense of a head coach who chose to shield a child rapist.

Well, they always told me college football was a religion. So no surprise Penn State would follow the Catholic Church’s blueprint for cover-up.

But such is the culture of big-time college sports in the United States.

I worked in one of these towns, the university equivalent of a company town where everyone conspires to protect the sacred or, should I say, cash cow. I wrote about players, coaches and boosters who were allowed to exist above the law, protected by a powerful machine and corrupt officials willing to turn their backs on all sorts of crimes.

But we’re talking about billions of dollars here. Penn State’s football program brought in $72.7 million last season, ranking fifth in college football team profits. Add to that, the team brought in $42.1 million from merchandising. That’s not to mention the millions brought into the community on game days.

Those involved in the Penn State affair are familiar characters to anyone who has ever worked in a university town – out-of-control athletic programs, paranoid university administrators, short-armed police investigators, crooked judges – all bound by the same influencing force. Greed.

Certainly, I never saw anything on this scale. No one has. But it’s amazing what kind of sins get covered up.

I do wonder, if a university turns its back on the most vulnerable, then don’t parents have the right to question a university’s commitment to the thousands of young men and women who are turned over to their campuses every year. What says they would not be sacrificed for the ‘good of the organization’ if they got in the way.

Every university president should sit down with the 23-page grand jury report. Find all the missed opportunities, all the places where cover-up compromised truth. Then look at their organizations and ask, ‘What would my people do?’

Universities are entrusted with the greatest possessions of many families. And last week showed some of them are not up to the task.

Just happy I don’t have to explain it.