Penn State Football: It’s About That Culture Thing


by Carolyn Todd

Why did Louis Freeh determine that Penn State had a so-called “football culture”?

In his report, Freeh states the following key finding:

“In the Fall of 2000, a University janitor observed Sandusky sexually assault a young boy in the East Area Locker Building and advised co-workers of what he saw. Also that evening, another janitor saw two pairs of feet in the same shower, and then saw Sandusky and a young boy leaving the locker room holding hands. Fearing that they would be fired for what they saw, neither janitor reported the incidents to university officials, law enforcement, or child protective agencies.”

Later in his report, Freeh describes an interview with one of the janitors involved: “Janitor B explained to the Special Investigative Counsel that reporting the incident ‘would have been like going against the President of the United States in my eyes.’ ‘I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone.’ He explained, ‘football runs this University,’ and said the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.”

And so according to Freeh, even though a more senior janitor discussed with these two janitors how to report what they saw, the two janitors involved decided that because they were fearful of losing their jobs, they would not report a tremendously awful crime. Or at least that’s what they told Freeh twelve years after it happened.

They blamed Paterno’s power for their failure to do what was the right thing to do at the time – to call the police.

I don’t necessarily want to judge them. I can understand the fear of losing a job, whether that fear is founded or not. But it’s a true shame that they did not report the crime when it occurred in 2000.

Sandusky might have been behind bars a lot sooner given what appears to be the clearest eye witness account of Sandusky performing a sexual act on a victim. A lot of victims might have been spared over the past decade.

And as the Paterno family report published last week has pointed out, just because a janitor assumed that Joe Paterno MIGHT fire him for reporting a crime doesn’t make it true that he WOULD have or even COULD have.

There is no evidence that Paterno would have dismissed these janitors and not taken them seriously. There is also no evidence that Paterno would have fired these janitors.

AND significantly enough there is no evidence that Paterno had the authority to fire these janitors even if he desired to, which in my opinion is not something he would have done.

Remember, in the year 2000 Sandusky didn’t report to Paterno or have anything to do with his program. And it has been well documented that Paterno wasn’t close to Sandusky or consider him a friend.

In addition there is ample evidence that when Mike McQueary reported something in 2001 that was far more ambiguous than what one of the janitors reportedly saw – he told his dad and a medical doctor that night and the jury during the Sandusky trial that he did NOT see a rape – Mike was neither fired or told by Paterno to keep it quiet.

Paterno made sure that Mike met with Tim Curley and Gary Schultz to report to them what he saw. Mike was kept on as graduate assistant coach and then later on he was promoted to assistant coach.

So why was Freeh so sympathetic to these janitors for not calling the police and so willing to blame the “football culture” for their inaction?

I probably never will understand that part of the history of the Sandusky scandal. It’s hard for me to fathom how anyone can be blamed for somehow ignoring a crime that was never reported. But that is in essence what the Freeh report does. It blames Paterno and the football culture.

Joe Paterno had a lot of influence, for sure, at Penn State. But was he powerful enough to decide EVERYTHING at the university? No, he wasn’t. That is a myth perpetrated by people who have a limited view or don’t understand how academia works.

Dr. Vicki Triponey, the former VP of Student Affairs, was another one of Freeh’s interviewees and it appears that her assertions also had influence on Freeh’s conclusions about a football culture. She is well-known for her complaints that she couldn’t wrest control away from Joe Paterno on whether or not his players could continue to play while facing disciplinary proceedings. Her complaints have been well-publicized in the media. She felt that it should be up to Judicial Affairs, not coaches, to determine player involvement in practice or games. Joe Paterno objected to that.

But what was NOT so well publicized in most media, although reported in a Centre Daily Times article written by Anne Danahy, is that an independent Faculty-Senate committee at the university interviewed 40 people about Triponey’s concerns and about her proposal for Judicial Affairs to determine whether or not an athlete should continue to play on a team if faced with disciplinary proceedings. This Faculty-Senate committee, NOT Joe Paterno, made the final recommendation to the university president as to how student discipline of both athletes and non-athletes should be handled.

Essentially this academic committee confirmed the notion that coaches should be allowed to determine whether or not a player should continue to play, not Judicial Affairs. They determined that for non-athlete extra-curricular activities it was left to the leader of those activities (e.g. advisor) to determine whether or not a non-athlete facing discipline should continue to participate. The committee felt that athletes should not be treated any differently than non-athletes.

The Freeh report’s opinion that there is some sort of a “football culture” that needs to be rectified at Penn State seems to be one of the reasons that the NCAA has come down especially hard on Penn State in assessing the harsh sanctions that it has.

Never mind that what happened at Penn State was criminal activity by a former coach, that none of the current players ever worked with. Never mind that it had nothing to do with creating competitive advantage on the playing field, which is supposedly what the NCAA is supposed to be investigating.

Mark Emmert, mimicking Freeh, publicly stated that Penn State’s “football culture” needs to change as a justification for his announcement of harsh NCAA sanctions. And what was even worse, he seemed to imply that academic integrity at Penn State had been compromised.

What was it about a 91% graduation rate of football student athletes at Penn State that Emmert didn’t like?

Perhaps the problem was that the people Freeh interviewed at Penn State ADMIRED the academic culture that was built within the football program?

And perhaps Freeh’s teams confused admiration for Joe’s commitment to academics and fundraising for an attitude of “Joe can do no wrong” or “Joe has too much power”?

Let us not forget, Emmert chose to accept the Freeh report and announce the worse NCAA sanctions ever against a university rather than launch his own investigation.

So Emmert doesn’t even know who Freeh interviewed in his investigation.

Trust me when I say, Penn State faculty and staff are smarter than to think Joe Paterno could have done no wrong. We respected Joe Paterno’s abilities as a head coach, his philanthropic efforts on behalf of Penn State, and his determination to make sure his players graduated.

But we also knew that he was quite human. He wasn’t perfect. We also knew that Joe had boundaries he respected. He had a lot of influence, but he didn’t always choose to use it.

Evidence of that fact is that neither Joe Paterno nor anyone else from the football office has ever interfered with a faculty decision related to the academics of a football player.

There has been no pressure to pass any athlete. None. Ever. By any coach of any athletic program at Penn State.

As an instructor at Penn State I’ve had my share of student athletes in the classroom – football and otherwise – and all I can say is that every scholarship athlete I have had in my classes is very closely monitored, three times per semester! To make sure they attend classes, to make sure they are participating, to make sure they are passing. It works, and Penn State has been admired over the decades for it working so well.

And speaking of football culture, what about the fact that football student athletes are involved in all sorts of other initiatives, such as “Lift for Life”, where this year alone they raised over $100,000 to combat kidney cancer?

And where this year Offensive Lineman Eric Shrive was named “Rare Disease Champion of the Year” by Uplifting Athletes and the Maxwell Club for his personal efforts in raising over $69,000 of that amount to fight this disease. Congratulations, Eric, on that honor!

No, Freeh and Emmert got it wrong. If you want to know what Penn State’s culture is truly about, consider this past weekend’s efforts in the dead cold of February.

710 student dancers on their feet for 46 hours. More than 15,000 students on their feet in the stands supporting those dancers. Countless Penn State student clubs and organizations spending weeks and months on end canning on street corners to raise money to combat pediatric cancer.

Countless folks – students, families, community members – standing in line for hours outside of the Bryce Jordan Center trying to get into the arena to lend their support to the dancers, and turned away because the largest inside venue on campus isn’t big enough to accommodate all who want to participate.

Numerous committees are organized throughout the year to support this event and make sure the dancers are well taken care for, and that the Thon children themselves – children who suffer tremendously from treatments related to their cancers – are having a great time.

That’s right. The children themselves who benefit from Thon interact directly with the students at Penn State, through the Four Diamonds Fund, which is the major beneficiary of the Thon fundraising effort.

Just about every student club participating in Thon has one or two of these children assigned to them. That makes the fundraising to cure cancer personal. Very personal. And given that these children sometimes don’t survive, it is agonizingly emotional in the final hours when during the Thon family hour the triumphs over cancer are celebrated, but then also the names and photos of the Thon children who passed away are flashed on the screen.

I teach at Penn State. I’m a huge football fan, as you know. But, when I think of culture at Penn State, I don’t think of football first.

I think of Thon. Thon is what pervades the atmosphere among students at Penn State, and it is what differentiates Penn State from any other major university in the world. Thon pervades all year round.

Football at Penn State is exciting, fun, a major passion each fall for seven home weekends each year. But isn’t that true at every FBS school? Isn’t it true at Alabama? Wisconsin? Michigan? Ohio State? You name it. Football is big in the fall at all of my top five favorite college football venues. I beg you to contend that Penn State football is more important than football at any other of these schools.

But while football is primarily a fall activity, the Penn State Dance Marathon drives Penn State students 52 weeks per year. The student clubs, fraternities, and sororities all organize into teams to can on weekends on street corners in communities throughout the northeast and even across the country.

Thon itself has what seem to be a zillion different committees, whether they be rules and regulations, morale, security, entertainment, communications, and of course there is a huge competitive thrust among the numerous student clubs to raise enough money to be eligible to sponsor one or more dancers to represent them, and to be recognized as a top 5 contributing student club among various designated categories of clubs when the grand amount is announced.

And so on a weekend in February, a miraculous event occurs, the culmination of a year’s worth of effort. A bunch of students hold a 46 hour dance party at the Bryce Jordan Center. No alcohol, by the way, is allowed within the BJC, and anyone who is visibly drunk is turned away.

The Thon kids have a ball. The dancers learn what it is like to suffer…and to survive.

Football culture? Football players are involved as well in supporting Thon. In fact, all the athletes at Penn State put on a show for the dancers on Saturday night. The athletic teams spend hours developing, practicing, and then competing for the best dance routine, and it’s a highlight of the weekend…you can view it here. It’s a great laugh, especially the men’s hockey team and this year’s winner, the men’s swim team.

In the end, in my opinion, the Penn State student culture is defined by Penn State students striving to make an impact on the world. The students contribute tremendously to the families whose kids are suffering from cancer, and to researching a cure for pediatric cancer. This year, they raised over $12 million. Since the beginning, over $101 million. For the kids.

And you know what? On Monday morning, the Thon mission will start all over again. New leadership for Thon will be named, a transition plan to impart all the lessons from this year’s successes and failures will occur, and committees will be formed to start the effort all over again for next year.

The janitors were wrong. Louis Freeh was wrong. So was Mark Emmert. Football doesn’t run everything at Penn State.

If you want to know what the culture at Penn State is about, especially in terms of student life, look no further than Thon.

Congratulations, Penn State students! For The Kids!!! $12.3 million plus. Every year I look at what Penn State students accomplish, and I’m absolutely amazed. As we all should be.

The world’s largest student-run philanthropy. That’s what defines Penn State culture, much more than football does. And I suspect it always will.

But it’s also what’s incredibly disturbing about the Sandusky crimes. Penn State’s culture is defined by the acronymn “FTK”. For The Kids.

Sandusky violated first of all his victims, but also the entire Penn State University, through his heinous criminal actions. He struck at the core of Penn State’s cultural beliefs which have always been about supporting children through Thon. He also struck at the core of the community’s support of The Second Mile, the charity he founded, which has also been all about supporting children.

That is what is so hard to accept. That this monster in our midst could go after the very kids that the culture of this school and this community could work so hard to support.

As for a football culture? For any Penn Stater, they know better.