Ever since the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke loose, the Penn State community has insisted on one thing: Joe Paterno and Nittany Lion football were not to blame. Paterno was and is -- perhaps now in an official capacity -- a saint, and Penn State was his church. One serial child molester among the lot does not implicate Paterno as the leader of a corrupt system, a maligned football program that uses its lofty status to incubate criminals from their actions.
Whatever you think of Joe Paterno and the degree of his culpability in Sandusky's no-less-than-45 counts of sexual abuse, it's clear that some fault exists. Oblivion is not the same as willful disregard, but the end result is basically the same. At any rate, the world came down hard on Paterno, with intense pressure from outsiders pushing the university into a quick firing and disassociation with its only head football coach since 1966.
The attempts, which claim some paltry renumeration or justice for Sandusky's victims, left Penn State and Joe Paterno devastated. After Paterno's firing, the NCAA stripped him of 111 wins that came during the period of Sandusky's abuses -- and after the point at which Paterno should have put two and two together. His statue outside of Beaver Stadium was taken down despite protests against the move. Penn State football escaped the ultimate punishment of having the NCAA shut the program down entirely; instead, it was hit with a four-year postseason ban and a loss of scholarships.
Public outcry was ear-splitting, particularly on social media -- the Internet Outrage Machine spun out a hunger for retribution that could never be sated (reasonably, if you consider that Sandusky's crimes could not be undone). The university was levied a $60 million fine for its central role as a facilitator and, in some cases, scene of the crime in Sandusky's various abuses. Its damaged reputation will likely take generations to restore, although residents of Happy Valley seem to have taken an insulating "us against the world" mentality.
The idea was to obliterate Penn State, respond to unprecedented tragedy with unprecedented consequence. At the time, it seemed like those measures were being taken.
And they were. But now, that strong response is quietly undergoing revision.
We're barely three years away from the outbreak of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the tone of conversation surrounding the saga has changed quite a bit. The NCAA has shrugged aside its almost merciless bent on justice -- or public relations, you make the interpretation -- and as of Friday restored the 111 Paterno wins it stripped from the program. The four-year bowl ban was already reduced to two -- this year, the program won the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl -- and plans to restore football scholarships ahead of schedule are already underway.
The $60 million fine remains, but Penn State and the NCAA are reportedly discussing how those funds will be applied -- the university wants the money to help fund child protection and other services. And while the Paterno statue outside of Beaver Stadium remains in storage at an undisclosed location, the Happy Valley community last spring approved funding for a new statue to go up in the center of town.
In other words, Penn State is no longer the bad guy. That's not an observation; it's the implication of the NCAA's actions and the public's relative lack of concern with how Paterno's legacy is handled. The Internet Outrage Machine that spun out swift and weighty backlash, that wanted Paterno burned at the stake right alongside Jerry Sandusky, has moved on. Time has healed, or at least it has distracted, and the conditions are right for Penn State and the NCAA to do what they want, as opposed to what is politically correct.
It seems a little suspicious that certain adjustments to those dispensed consequences -- particularly the restoration of Paterno's wins -- came after a period of leaking the possibilities out to the media. You have to think the NCAA and Penn State were watching the public reaction, interested in using those leaks as a barometer for what kind of backlash they might face. The response, of course, was tepid: Some voices were in support of the wins restoration, some were against the move. But none of them were loud. None posed a threat.
The fine is no small thing, granted. Even so, life within the domain of Penn State football is precariously close to something like normal.
Here's the lingering unknown: Is that the right thing?
Anyone supporting this drift toward normalcy will say that what has happened won't be forgotten. That's a pretty safe assumption. They'll say punishment has been dispensed, which is true: Penn State was financially rocked, Paterno died in disgrace just months after he was fired, and Sandusky is in jail for life. They'll say Penn State has done everything it can to prevent something like this from happening again, which is just about true. They'll say nothing more can be done, and that it's not fair to inflict pain just for pain's sake.
Fair enough. And maybe some of the NCAA and Penn State's actions were knee-jerk products of some of the most intense public outcry we've ever seen -- driven, of course, by social media's then-blooming political power. But perhaps the span of three short years has distorted the scale of atonement we are seeking. To swim through hell for three years only to resurface at the pearly gates of a new day seems insincere to the national nightmare that took place in Happy Valley.
This isn't just a Penn State football issue: People across the country were rocked not by the scandal itself, and certainly not because of any belief or faith they held in Joe Paterno. They reacted out of the fear of such a tragedy's possibility, in such a public and presumably safe place, among leaders of young men, around the corner from a football power whose personal brand was doing things the right way.
Atonement doesn't simply mean "make sure this doesn't happen again." It doesn't simply mean "suffer." And it sure as hell doesn't mean "Respond in a manner that will silence your critics."
Atonement, in this case, demands that Penn State, the NCAA and everyone involved make sure that the response fits the scale of the crimes. The crimes were enormous. The prospect of it reoccurring anywhere cannot be tolerated. The seriousness of the issue needs to be emphasized, and this expedited repeal process currently ongoing doesn't seem to be a response that fits the circumstances.
In three years, apparently, we've decided that some of our actions were excessive. Impulsive. We took it hard on Joe Paterno and Penn State.
Now, the NCAA wants to recant. And it isn't facing much scrutiny over it.
We aren't getting the consistency we deserve from how the Penn State scandal continues to be viewed. But, then again, those voices that called for every head in Happy Valley aren't rising to the occasion, either. Maybe a numbness has set in; maybe emotion reactions are finally giving way to more reasoned, measured responses.
The tone regarding Penn State has changed. The legacy of Joe Paterno is being rebuilt, brick by brick. It's clear the NCAA was overzealous in jumping to certain punishments, the wins removal included.
In doing so, the organization compromised its ability to effectively deliver punishments in the manner and measure that Penn State -- and Paterno -- deserved.