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Disgrace at Penn State

A child-sex scandal shakes a university and takes down a revered football coach. But students have the opportunity to help restore a high moral and ethical standard.

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The child-sex scandal at Penn State University could be called “the single biggest story in the history of college sports,” as one veteran sports columnist has done.

But in another sense the grand jury indictment alleging that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was a sexual predator has little to do with athletics. Unlike steroid use or recruiting violations, this scandal isn’t about endangering the health and well-being of student athletes or gaining a competitive advantage.

It is a sports story, though, when it raises questions of whether the Penn State football program – and its venerable head coach, Joe Paterno – were protected from proper scrutiny because the program was too valuable to be subjected to scandal.

Mr. Paterno’s position among the nation’s coaches can’t be overestimated. He was known for running a football program that was both “clean” and successful. A statue of him on campus describes him as “Educator – Coach – Humanitarian.” He contributed millions of dollars to and led fundraising efforts for a library on campus that bears his name. 

An assistant coach has testified to a grand jury that in 2002 he observed Mr. Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the showers of the athletic facility. The assistant told Paterno what he had seen and Paterno duly reported the conversation to his superior at the university.

But the seriousness of the alleged offense calls into question Paterno’s judgment at the time. Didn’t he have a moral responsibility, if not a legal one, to pursue the matter more vigorously?

Paterno, who just this season became the winningest coach in major college football history, showed how out of touch he was with the seriousness of the situation this week by offering to resign at the end of this year’s football season. The school’s board of trustees wisely decided to fire him now, along with the school’s president, to show that they were acting decisively to address a horrendous situation.

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