PSU handling worst nightmare in worst way
A large group of students and others surround Penn State football head coach Joe Paterno at his home.
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Going six days deep now into just about the worst thing that could happen, and still Penn State sinks hour by desperate hour into its own public stupor.
The university long has recoiled nearly instinctively at the approach of the media, and that was under optimally sunny circumstances, when the most unflattering "news" reportable was the perfectly benign and only occasional three-game losing streak.
Football practice has been closed to the media since the 1970s. Penn State closed the postgame locker room in the early '80s rather than admit a female beat reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer. But media distrust and resistance is not a football function, it's systemic and current.
Only Monday of this week, for a story that appeared on Page 1 of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Penn State "declined to give details when PublicSource and news partner The Allegheny Front asked which companies and industry sectors contributed to research at the school." The article also pointed out that in '07, Penn State president Graham Spanier lobbied the state legislature not to include Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln University under the state's revamped Right-to-Know law.
So do not be surprised that Penn State has no more idea of how to handle a public relations disaster than it does an eyewitness account of a sexual assault on a child in the shower at its football facility.
That's why Tuesday, 30 minutes before Joe Paterno's regular weekly news hand-wringer to emphasize the strengths of the next opponent, Penn State sent Jeff Nelson out to read a statement attributed to no one other than "we."
That was not fair to him.
Scores of national media outlets, the conduits of an outraged public, lined the sidewalk between the stadium and Nelson's office, and learned from the assistant athletic director for football communications that no one so much as a single rung higher in the university's sprawling bureaucracy would be talking.
Not Paterno, obviously, not Spanier, no one from the 48-member board of trustees, not even a corporate-titled flak from the central communications staff.
Mind you, that was not William H. Mahon III, vice president for university relations out there on the sidewalk with the jostling minicams and firing photogs. Strictly a football matter evidently. Who needs two for the Nebraska game?
"Due to ongoing legal circumstances centered around the legal allegations and charges," Nelson said, reading from a badly written statement, "we have determined that today's press conference cannot be held and will not be rescheduled."
We have determined? Jeff and who? The attorney general? The governor?
Paterno's son, Scott, said it was Spanier's call, and that Joe actually wanted to field questions about Jerry Sandusky, the long-time former defensive coordinator named over the weekend in a blistering, 23-page grand jury presentment detailing a horrifying history of alleged child sexual predation dating back into the 1990s.
With the New York Times reporting that Paterno could be forced out at any minute, it was just about perfectly typical that, in its worst moments, the university apparently was readying to separate itself from the one guy the attorney general said had no legal culpability.
Again, these are the smart guys.
Everyone outside the poisoned Penn State synergy knows what has to happen at the university. Athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, both of whom asked to be relieved of duty while they fight perjury charges (they are allowed to bill Penn State, or, in other words, you and me) need to go. Paterno needs to go, but only if he is cuffed to Spanier, the highest ranking negligent party on the whole sorry blue and white roster.
All that, of course, is only the beginning of the dramatic changes needed at Penn State. More on that in the coming days.
This is what happens, we should know, when a head coach and his football operatives become so powerful they convince themselves they can function independently even of societal conventions, most particularly when their superiors apparently agree.
"Nearly all men can stand adversity," said Abraham Lincoln. "But, if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
And so these are the final hours of nearly a half-century of unbridled power.
The images continue to be nightmarish. An 84-year-old man crying out his window to a mob of students as he returns from football practice?
I would tell you that Penn State could not possibly have handled this any worse, but it's only Wednesday.
First Published November 9, 2011 12:00 am