In consuming the same news stories and opinion pieces about Penn State's remarkably limp response to the football program's former defensive coordinator's unique way of expressing his commitment to children, I've been trying to make sense of the reaction of Tim Curley and Joe Paterno, among other. Short of murder, child molestation is about as bad a crime as there is. Jerry Sandusky committed repeated acts of molestation, such that he was observed at Penn State's football facilities on at least two occasions performing sex acts with boys. This is not a case where authorities would have to rely upon the testimony of a child to determine whether a crime has been committed. Sandusky was so brazen in his conduct that he committed these crimes in a place where he could be observed by adults, first a janitor and then Mike McQueary, who was a graduate assistant at the time. Confronted with eyewitness testimony from adults on at least two separate occasions, Penn State's authority figures did nothing.
This sin is especially grave because it is fairly common knowledge that individuals who commit acts of pedophilia are highly likely to perform the same crimes again. The offense has a very high rate of recidivism because of the psychological pathologies involved. Sandusky's crimes cannot be written off as a crime of passion that is unlikely to repeat itself. Thus, the failure on the part of Penn State authority figures to act appropriately made future crimes by Sandusky a likelihood. Every child who was assaulted by Sandusky after the 2002 incident can legitimately point a finger at Curley, Paterno, McQueary, and others at Penn State. Almost certainly, those individuals (or, more precisely, their parents) will be hiring highly-capable lawyers (the victims will have their pick of the best plaintiffs' lawyers in the country) to point those fingers for them and Penn State will ultimately have to respond by writing some very large checks.
So how does this happen? I would posit that athletic departments at major universities are places where the default response to any wrongdoing is to try to handle it in-house and to avoid reporting it to the appropriate authorities. Major college football and basketball, the games about which so many of us choose to obsess, live a lie in at least two major respects. First, those sports involve massive amounts of revenue paired with antiquated British rules enshrining amateurism as a defining value. The natural place for the money to flow is to the players who generate it, but the NCAA seeks to prevent that water from flowing to its natural destination: the players who create the revenue. Second, colleges and universities have to lower their academic standards in order to admit the players who can make the difference between winning and losing. They have to operate under the fiction that an individual with a 2.3 GPA and an 850 SAT score from a below-average urban or rural high school can compete academically with students whose credentials far out-strip those of the athlete and come from an environment that makes them much better prepared to process what the professor is saying, understand the assigned reading materials, and create coherent answers to difficult questions based on what they have learned over the course of a semester.
Thus, the mission of athletic departments, unofficially, has to be to ignore reality. They have to look the other way when a star player is driving a car that is well beyond his present means. They have to ignore the extent to which tutors assigned to the players are doing the players' assigned course work. Athletic departments have to put in place compliance regimes that look good and act to stop the most obvious violations of NCAA rules, but at the end of the day, they cannot be cultures based on reporting all rules violations. To use an analogy from another black market economy, la cosa nostra has to be the default rule.
If you want two illustrations of that culture at work, look at Ohio State and Penn State. Jim Tressel - a man with a sterling reputation prior to last December - received information from a former Ohio State player about NCAA violations made by his players. He did not forward this information as he was required to do by NCAA rules. Various media outlets then found story after story of potential additional violations, each time leading Ohio State's Athletic Director, Gene Smith, to cut and paste a version of "this is all news to us" into the school's response. When confronted with media reports that Tressel had sat on evidence of violations, Smith and University President Gordon Gee believed that a two-game suspension would suffice for Tressel. It was only after a media firestorm that became hotter as a result of Smith and Gee's comical response that Tressel was fired, a fact that Ohio State later touted to the NCAA as evidence that it took the scandal seriously.
Penn State's scandal involves conduct that is worse by several orders of magnitude than that committed by the Tat Five, but it follows the same pattern. University officials receive evidence of wrong-doing, they try to keep the evidence in-house, and then their efforts to keep everything quiet are foiled when the criminal justice system gets involved. And just as Gee embarrassingly claimed "I only hope that he doesn't fire me" when asked if he would terminate Tressel (a move that Ohio State was ultimately forced to take), Penn State President Graham Spanier issued a press release defending his recently-indicted administrators, another colossal miscalculation of how the media would treat the scandal. Again, the default response to violations of NCAA rules or, in Penn State's case, the criminal of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, was not to report the violations to the proper authorities. Instead, it was sit on the evidence in the hopes that the problem would just go away and then for the university president to defend those who did the sitting. Given the environment in which athletic departments operate, we should be upset, but we should not be surprised.