JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
And now, The Opinion Page. A damning report last week found that four of the most powerful people at Penn State helped cover up the child sex-abuse allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The report charges the college with total disregard for the safety of the victims in an attempt to avoid bad press for the university. The university also faces civil suits over the abuses. So is that the end? Sports columnist Buzz Bissinger says it should only be the beginning.
He wants Penn State's football program banned for at least five years, and a number of other sports writers are joining that call, decrying the corrupt culture of big-time college football. What do you think? Should football be banned at Penn State? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Buzz Bissinger is the sports columnist for The Daily Beast, and he joins us from a studio in Philadelphia. Welcome.
BUZZ BISSINGER: Thank you.
LUDDEN: The report by Louis Freeh essentially charged that Penn State University had direct knowledge of specific incidents of child abuse and worked to cover it up. You write that you listened to as much of this announcement last week as you could stand. What did you think when you heard it?
BISSINGER: Well, you know, I really wasn't shocked by the findings. But, you know, when you - the devil is in the details, and when you see some of the things that they did, when you see the extent of the cover-up, when you see the extent to which Joe Paterno lied about his involvement, when you see that in emails in 2001, they started using code, the three top administrators and Joe Paterno, it just does make your stomach churn when you find out that Jerry Sandusky got a lump sum pension payment of $168,000 in 1999 that was unprecedented in school history, you say to yourself: They were more worried about taking care of Jerry Sandusky when they were pursuing these allegations - that turned out to be true - of sexual abuse.
And as Freeh said in his report, it really is traceable to the entrenched football culture that exists at Penn State, and it's not just Penn State. It's schools all over the country, and I think it is having an insidious effect.
LUDDEN: So what do you want to see happen?
BISSINGER: Well, I want to see - you know, I thought the board of trustees that day instead of using the words accountability and responsibility and the blah-blah-blah buzzwords that, you know, trustees use, I think they should have gotten up and said we are canceling the football season. I think they should have said that. At a minimum, I think they should have said we're canceling the football season because we have to do something to lessen the football culture at Penn State.
We saw what the football culture did, and we also have to remind our alumni, our students - and I think the faculty already knows this - that we are an academic institution. Instead, you know, they talked, and they really did nothing. So I think it's going to fall in the lap of the NCAA, which is a pretty feckless institution. And...
LUDDEN: They're now investigating. What is their role, here? What is - what are they charged with?
BISSINGER: Well, you know, the role is always vague, you know? But they can, in fact, enact penalties if they find there was a kind of institutional dereliction. So they do have the ability, you know, if it was an institutional, in a sense, an institutional-wide cover-up relating to football - and I think there's no doubt about that, and I think the Freeh report says that. And they could - if they want, under their bylaws, which are a little bit vague. But the interpretation of those who are experts say they could enact the death penalty, which would be a ban on football for at least a year, and then a very reduced program the second year.
It's only been given out once in football. I think it was the mid-1980s to Southern Methodist University, and I think it's - you know, Southern Methodist University got the death penalty for paying off recruits. Penn State, you know, aided and abetted a sexual predator. There's no - they're not comparable. And I think that what Penn State did is, frankly, five times worse, 10 times worse, 100 times worse. And I think college football there has to be taken out of the equation.
LUDDEN: OK. Now, not to get too deep in the sports weeds, here, but another sports writer, Tim Dahlberg at AP, says that they actually can't impose the death penalty. That only applies to schools committing a major violation while on probation. Is there some fine point here that...
BISSINGER: There's a lot - no. There's a lot of interpretation of that rule. And others who have said it said, actually, under their own bylaws, they could, in fact, enact the death penalty. That's been studied.
BISSINGER: It is somewhat vague, but many have said that, in fact, they could do it if they want. The NCAA can pretty much do what it wants.
LUDDEN: OK. But I think that...
BISSINGER: And I guarantee you that...
LUDDEN: Go ahead.
BISSINGER: ...Penn football - Penn State football, you know, would not fight the penalty. If they fought the penalty, people would be up in arms. And I think people in the country - all over the country are up in arms, as they should be.
LUDDEN: But the thing that comes to mind, you know, in that kind of scenario is, OK, the, you know, the kids on the team this year had nothing to do with this, presumably, right? There's a lot...
BISSINGER: No, I mean, you know, any...
LUDDEN: ...of innocent people would be affected, here.
BISSINGER: But any time the NCAA enforces a rule or bans a school from a ballgame or strips schools of scholarships, I mean, innocent people get involved. And there's actually a very easy way to solve it: release these kids from their scholarship commitments to Penn State, and allow them to go anywhere they want without the customary period of having to sit out a year. Then they don't suffer. So you've gotten rid of that problem. I've heard people suggest that over and over again. So there's an easy solution.
You know, what Penn State did - what the Freeh Report shows, it was a deliberate, constant cover up, both in 1998 and in 2001. Between those periods, Jerry Sandusky went on to basically rape other children. It was a cover up because of football, because of the protection of the program. And, you know, they cared much more, much more about satisfying Jerry Sandusky's needs because he was a member of the Penn State football family - which is run like the mafia - than they did about any of the kids who were abused. And as I say, if SMU was given the death penalty for payoffs, Penn State should get a minimum of five years. I mean, I'm sorry, but I didn't do it. You didn't do it. They did it.
LUDDEN: All right. Let's get some callers on the line, here. Zan(ph) in Woodbury, Kentucky. Hi, there.
ZAN: Hi. Thanks for having me on. Listen, I agree with your guest totally, and this is an issue of the student. It's a shame that the students are going to get penalized potentially for this, but this is a school. You're right. It's a mafia-run scenario, where they allowed this egregious thing to happen, and they should be punished. And it's a shame the students are going to get punish for it. But, good Lord, I mean, somebody has to take responsibility here.
LUDDEN: All right, Zan. Thanks for that call.
ZAN: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Sorry about that, Zan. And Langston(ph) in Spokane, Washington. Hi, there.
LANGSTON: Hi. As a high school recruit - I'm actually going into college football next year, so I had a little bit of experience. And I heard the guest mention that it would be easy for the kids to transfer to other schools. However, the problem with that is these kids have been promised things. They've gone through the process, a long process, of getting into this school. And just taking away their education at Penn State and expecting to go somewhere else is not realistic. And I don't believe in punishment and...
BISSINGER: Well, why isn't it realistic? I don't understand that.
LANGSTON: Because these kids (unintelligible)...
BISSINGER: If they - you know what? If they want to get an education at Penn State, they can keep their scholarships and actually get an education without football, and they'll have a hell of a lot better chance of getting it. If they want to play football somewhere else...
LANGSTON: What I'm trying to say is that these kids are the ones being punished, as much as we like to think the program is being punished. The kids outweigh...
BISSINGER: But these...
LANGSTON: ...how many staff members there are, and the staff members have been fired. And we can continue to take out people...
BISSINGER: You know, the kids...
LANGSTON: ...that have been involved in the process...
BISSINGER: Let me ask you a question. Let me ask you a question.
LANGSTON: ...because what happened was horrible. Yes.
BISSINGER: Let me ask you a question. When the NCAA punishes and disciplines a school, if they take away a ballgame or they strip scholarships, don't innocent kids suffer who have nothing to with it?
LANGSTON: I don't believe they should even do that.
BISSINGER: Isn't that true of Ohio State?
LANGSTON: I don't believe - it's true. It's true, but I don't think they're going to do that...
BISSINGER: Yeah, it is true.
LANGSTON: ...in the first place.
BISSINGER: So release them from their scholarships.
LANGSTON: I don't agree with that at all. I don't agree in the first place.
BISSINGER: Well, I don't care if you don't agree with it. It's the truth.
LUDDEN: OK, Buzz, but we are...
LANGSTON: It's true what the gentleman is trying...
LUDDEN: ...we are getting all opinions, here.
LUDDEN: Langston, I mean, people are saying, look, this is really - it goes beyond Penn State and the whole, you know, college football culture is corrupt. Are you worried about this?
LANGSTON: Oh, it is corrupt. But my point is you're not punishing the people that need to be punished by taking away kids playing football. That's not going to solve the problem.
LUDDEN: All right, Langston, thanks for the call. And let's get one more, here. Ryan in Sarasota, Florida. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
RYAN: Hello. I just want to agree with your guest, as well. I covered Division I athletics at a university out West, first as a student, and then professionally for about 10 years. And I got to witness firsthand a culture that turned otherwise good people into protectors of student athletes from anything from misdemeanors, all the way up to rape. And it was an incredibly sad and scary thing to see...
LUDDEN: You also saw this, or are you talking about Penn State when you say rape?
RYAN: No. In - at the university I covered, it was an athlete charged with assault. And in covering the story, we would routinely get calls from other student athletes, from alumni, from backers of the program encouraging us to not run the story, to downplay that story, to explain the story. And these were people that, in everyday private life, would absolutely be disgusted with the actions accused of - by a few bad apples in these programs. But because they were in athletics, there were such a culture of protectionism.
LUDDEN: Hmm. Ryan, thanks so much for the call. Buzz?
LUDDEN: What's your reaction to that? A lot of pressure there, a lot at stakes here.
BISSINGER: Well, you know, there are a lot at stakes, and I don't mean to be contentious. But I've studied the effects of the sports culture for the 25 years. I mean, "Friday Night Lights" - which was about the effect and impact of high school football in Texas - was about this subject, in which, you know, kids were turned into sacrificial lambs because of the great god of high school football in a relatively small town in Texas.
I actually have seriously advocated the ban on college football. It's exciting. It's wonderful. It's entertaining. It's all those things. But no one has ever made a convincing argument to me as to what academic purpose it has. We are the only society in the world that looks to colleges and universities for sports as primary sources of entertainment.
And, yes, kids will suffer. Students will suffer. But you have to send a message, and not just to Penn State. It will act - and often, this is the purpose of punishments - as a deterrent to these other major college programs that have ran amok.
The last caller is right. Crimes are concealed. Football coaches make three to four times what the university president does. Presidents are scared of football coaches. They suck all the air out of the room. Men's grades go down, depending on how successful the team is. Drinking goes up, and it's gotten out of control, because it's - the football culture is entrenched in so many universities around the country, and 40 percent of the big-time universities lose money.
LUDDEN: Hmm. We have a few emails, here. Sue writes in: The students were nowhere around when the bad decisions were made. It makes no sense to punish them.
Seth in Philadelphia writes: I have no connection to Penn State, but can understand calls for its football program to be suspended. School administration should take this step immediately to show their shame, admit their guilt and perform their penance. Seth asks: I'd like to know if the victims have thoughts on the sacrifice the school should make for this. Have we heard from them?
BISSINGER: We haven't heard, you know, much from the victims. I, you know, have not heard from any victims talking about what should happen to Penn State football. Should it be a five-year ban? Frankly, that may be too long. But I think there should be at least a year ban. I think it sends a message. I think it will reduce the football culture, not just at Penn State. We saw - I mean, the ramifications of what happened here were hideous, I mean, absolutely hideous. They aided and abated - at the top levels, and a once-beloved coach. They aided and abated a sexual animal. I don't know how else to put it. And I think it'll be a wake-up call for other universities and other college presidents that the most important person at the school is not the football coach.
LUDDEN: All right. I believe you need to - we have a few more callers on the line, but, Buzz, I believe you need to leave us, is that correct, for another show? So we're going to...
BISSINGER: That's right. Yeah, I'm doing another radio - I actually do a radio show, so I apologize because, you know, the calls are interesting.
LUDDEN: That's OK. Well...
BISSINGER: And I get worked up because it's a very passionate subject to me. So I apologize for that.
LUDDEN: Well, we appreciate your passion. Buzz Bissinger, the sports columnist for The Daily Beast, joined us from a studio in Philadelphia. Thank you so much.
BISSINGER: Oh, you're welcome.
LUDDEN: And Jerry is on the phone now in South Miami, Florida. Hi there, Jerry.
JERRY: Hi. I don't completely agree with your main speaker who's leaving. I have long felt that in all of these cases, you should punish the people who actually commit the crimes. Boosters, agents, anybody that does the bad things, they never get punished. Only the innocent students do. It doesn't - so it keeps on going on, and it hasn't stopped the stuff that goes on all over the place. If people knew they were going to get sued, then they would think twice before they invade(ph) all these kids. And in this case, two of these people, I believe, are already going in jail. So you're punishing the perpetrators. I see nothing to be gained by punishing innocent kids.
LUDDEN: All right. You're echoing there the Democratic strategist, James Carville, asked about it this weekend with his always quotable quotes. He said: "Let Penn State football play. Let them make money. Bring the trial lawyers in, pluck that chicken clean. What about the idea of ensuring the program makes money so they can compensate victims?
JERRY: Well, that, too. But even if it wasn't - even beyond Penn State, Ohio State, you punish the people who corrupted the players. You don't corrupt - you don't punish the other players who had nothing to do with it. Same thing with USC. They didn't - most of the kids playing football didn't do anything. So you're punishing students. You're punishing football players. You're punishing alumni. You're punishing people who depend on the school, you know, innocent merchants in the community, none of whom approve any of this stuff and had anything to do with it. You punish the guys that do it bad. I've often felt if boosters got sued for big bucks, they wouldn't do the things that they're doing.
LUDDEN: All right, Jerry. Thanks so much for the phone call.
JERRY: Thank you.
LUDDEN: And we have one last email from Michael in St. Cloud, Minnesota: I teach college. It's clear virtually all athletic programs have overwhelming political control on college campuses. Intercollegiate athletics should be ended for the damage they do to college educations.
Lots of strong opinions. We were joined earlier by Buzz Bissinger, the sports columnist for The Daily Beast. And thanks to everyone for your phone calls. This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.