I've never set foot on Penn State's campus, but because of what the university has done for my father, Penn State means as much to me as any of the educational institutions I've attended.
My dad grew up poor in a tiny Nigerian village. He did well in school but was certain he would never attain higher education. Nobody in his family ever had, and in any event, they didn't have anything approximating the money it would cost to pay the tuition and fees. Because my dad finished at the top of his high school class, however, he was one day summoned to Lagos (then Nigeria's capital) to take a standardized academic aptitude test. He had no idea why, but he figured it couldn't hurt.
A year later, after he'd returned to his village, he received a letter saying, "Congratulations! You've been admitted to the Pennsylvania State University." My dad had never heard of Penn State and would later learn that his performance on the test he took in Lagos qualified him for a program that funded African students to attend American universities.
With trepidation, my grandparents put my dad on a plane and sent him halfway across the world. The flight sickened him, he endured that first Pennsylvania winter in fear that the frigid temperatures -- unlike anything he had ever felt -- might well kill him, and he fought through classes in which his professors could barely understand his heavily accented English and he could barely understand theirs.
But he made it. He earned his undergraduate degree and went on to earn a PhD. He is now a professor of engineering living 30 miles from the village in which he grew up, and over the years he has funded numerous members of our extended family and other neighboring families as they've sought out education.
Penn State changed my father's life, and he gets emotional when he talks about it.
He'll be arriving in the States later this week for a family gathering, and because he pays little attention to American news while in Nigeria and only rarely ventures on to the Internet, I'm certain he will have no idea of the scandal in which his alma mater is deeply embroiled. He won't know that longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky allegedly raped young boys on campus over the course of 15 years and that the university did nothing to stop the reign of terror -- that its most powerful men, including the legendary Joe Paterno, turned a blind eye when they knew or had reason to know of the sexual assaults; that the entire issue was swept under a rug and left there for more than a decade.
It will fall to me to tell him how a thing like this could have happened at the university he so loves and respects, and I've spent the last couple days trying to figure out how to do it.
I'll have to start, I think, by explaining the madness of big time collegiate athletics. My dad spends a few weeks a year here in the States and he enjoys watching sports, but he has no concept of the business that collegiate athletics has become. I'll tell him about the billion-dollar television deals and the million-dollar sponsorship deals and the exorbitant salaries that so many coaches receive.
He'll look at me aghast, but I'll continue.
I'll tell him that among big time college sports, football is easily the top money-maker and that as a consequence, many football programs have outsized power in their universities; that university academic successes are a virtual afterthought in comparison with wins and losses and bowl game appearances; that many football programs are their own kingdoms, accountable to no one; that even university presidents sometimes bow to head football coaches.
My father is big on respecting authority, so this will drive him nuts. He'll ask me whether I'm sure I know what I'm talking about. I'll assure him I do, and then I'll tell him that, for example, when a journalist asked Ohio State president Gordon Gee not long ago whether he intended to fire his head football coach, Gee, without missing a beat, responded: "I hope he doesn't fire me."
I'll remind my dad of the adulation college football coaches and players enjoy in small college towns -- that they are viewed as superheroes just as they were viewed as superheroes back in his undergrad days. The difference, I'll tell him, is the money and the power and the consequent increased air of invincibility.
I'll ultimately tell my Dad that the pedestal on which big time college football now sits grants people involved with big time programs unprecedented access to pretty much whatever they want in the community, and because universities with big time football programs have startlingly little control over those programs, the only checks and balances on the conduct of those in the programs are self-imposed. So, if it happens that a person in a big time college football program sets out to sexually assault young children, chances are that only those in the program will have the power to stop it. And I'll tell him that at his beloved alma mater, when numerous young children were suffering, nobody stepped in to stop it.
My dad will be devastated, and he'll fume for some time after which he'll probably sit silently for a while longer. Then, if I know my dad, he'll say something like, "so this could have happened at any school, how do we know it hasn't?"
At that point, I'll have no answer for him, and we'll sit in disgusted silence together.
If there is anything scarier than what has happened at Penn State, it is that as you read this column, it could be happening at any number of big time football schools around the country. Few American institutions have the mixture of access, entitlement and lack of accountability that we see in big time college football, and over the years we've seen that cocktail explode in various scandals at various institutions. And whether the scandal involves major recruiting violations or systematic cheating schemes or mistreatment of players, if we see a scandal at one school, sooner or later we see a similar scandal at another.
Now we've got this horrific child abuse scandal at Penn State. What in the world gives us comfort that this is anomalous? What makes us think the same thing isn't happening elsewhere? Can we really believe that Jerry Sandusky is a complete outlier -- that there aren't other coaches at other big time football schools with similar access and entitlement and lack of accountability who may be doing or be on the precipice of doing what Sandusky has done?
It is a chilling and sickening thought, but we have to engage it. The people in power at Penn State did nothing to protect the victimized boys, and those people must now pay account. But if we -- everybody who has anything to do with big time college football, even if only as fans or writers -- do not set about to curb the insane power and impunity with which these programs generally operate, and if, God forbid, another child is sexually assaulted by some other coach on some other big time college football campus, then we will have to pay account. The blood will then be on our hands.