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In picking up the pieces of Joe Paterno's football program, Penn State should embark on a new Grand Experiment

Penn State plans to renovate the showers at the Lasch Football Building, the same showers where former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted children. But even if Penn State rebuilds its entire football facility, the school must still figure out what to do with the team inside it.

For decades Penn State football fans claimed their program was different, better and purer than others—a model for all college sports. But former FBI director Louis Freeh's 267-page report blew a hole through that claim last Thursday. It is withering, thorough, believable: When Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno, school president Graham Spanier and others were told that Sandusky was molesting children, they all felt bad. For Sandusky.

They all then proceeded to actively cover for Sandusky, enabling him to continue to assault children for years. Their cover-up is even harder to understand than his crimes. Sandusky is a sick, deranged man. Paterno, Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz were all supposed to be intelligent, reasonable people in positions of authority who should have known better. But the aura of the football program fogged everything else in State College, Pa., and they allowed a pedophile to roam through their community in order to spare it, and themselves, embarrassment.

In the aftermath of the Sandusky disclosures and the release of Freeh's report, most of the suggestions for Penn State's future have been punitive: banning the team from competition for a year, applying NCAA sanctions, removing the Paterno statue from outside Beaver Stadium. But does Penn State need more punishment? Most of the scandal's principal figures are either in jail, facing prosecution or, in Paterno's case, dead. The university is draped in shame. Civil suits are surely coming (three have already been filed) and will cost the school millions.

The NCAA has a right to investigate Penn State, and violations should result in penalties. But canceling the season would mostly hurt the current players, who had nothing to do with the scandal, and it would punish Penn State's opponents, who would lose a game on the schedule, and it would throw the Big Ten into scheduling chaos, and ... wait, wait, wait. This was the problem in the first place. We're making football out to be far more important than it is.

Why not instead have Penn Staters create the program they always claimed to have?

Football was supposed to enhance the academic experience at Penn State as part of Paterno's Grand Experiment. The school can stop selling the idea and implement it. Use football for a more concrete cause: Profits from the coming season could be diverted to create a facility to study and destigmatize child sex abuse. There's a student-run organization already in place, the One Heart campaign (SI, July 2). Penn State could establish itself as a leading research institution for studying and preventing child abuse and embrace the very problem that brought it down.

And as for the football team, here is a revolutionary thought: View it like ... a football team. Stop looking at the school exclusively through a face mask. Enjoy the tailgates and the fight song, but remove the statue of Paterno. Don't brag about holding players to a higher standard, administered by the football coach; hold them to the same standard as other students. Treat new coach Bill O'Brien like an employee instead of a god. What a grand experiment that would be.

Penn State had a broken culture, but fans around the country who say, "It could never happen at my school," should not be so sure. Cover-ups and skewed priorities are common throughout major-college sports.

Delete the disgraceful details of the Sandusky scandal and the story suddenly sounds familiar. A (big-name coach) wanted to protect his program from scrutiny, and the university (president/chancellor) and (other administrators) refused to stand up to (that big-name coach) because (fans) believed (their program) was morally superior to (your program).

Even before the Freeh report, many people knew Paterno had too much power. Penn State faculty members grumbled about it privately. JoePa did as he pleased when he pleased because he was JoePa, and if JoePa did it, it must be righteous and true. The JoePa mystique spawned a thousand glowing stories, but it wasn't healthy. A seemingly benevolent despot is still a despot, and public universities should not have despots.

It is easy to say we saw a different side of Paterno in the last few months—right up to last Saturday when The New York Times reported that he had begun renegotiating a lucrative end to his tenure in January 2011, around the same time he was called to testify to the grand jury investigating Sandusky. (A lawyer for the Paterno family says it was Penn State, not Paterno, that proposed the valuable buyout last summer.) But what we saw was the same side of the man from a different angle. For years we chose to see only the victories, the graduation rate and the clean NCAA record. But Paterno, as the Freeh report asserts, avoided scrutiny, defied his so-called bosses and manipulated his image for many years. He was an American icon, and he knew it.

This is the man who so many people worshipped. And this is what can happen when you worship a man. And this is what can happen when you worship a sport.

That is why the Paterno statue must go. Karen B. Peetz, the chairman of Penn State's board of trustees, used the words "a teachable moment" when discussing next steps in the wake of the report's release, and Penn State should learn to stop worshipping false idols. Many Nittany Lions fans would be outraged if the statue were moved. But maybe then they would notice something far more significant: the rest of the university.


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