Commentary: Morality took a back seat to sporting glory at Penn State

Five years before scandal overwhelmed Penn State, we saw devotion to school sports trump morality right here Miami-Dade County. A sexual crime against a child was shrugged off. Laws were ignored. Cops weren’t notified.

“The priorities were skewed and the safety of the little girl was far from paramount,” a Miami-Dade grand jury stated. Maybe, but like Penn State’s descent into ignominy, a winning football program was protected.

In September 2006, the 18-year-old star running back of the formidable Miami Northwestern High football team lured a freshman, just turned 14, into sex, as the grand jury report described, “on the cold bathroom floor” at the school. A third-degree felony. The girl confided in a school guidance counselor. Other school employees notified the principal. The grand jury reported that at least 21 Northwestern adult employees knew of the sexual encounter.

School officials had a legal obligation to notify the cops. But police only learned of the incident that December, and then by happenstance, when the child’s mother bumped into a school district policeman and asked about the investigation. On Dec. 7, 2006, the football player was finally arrested and charged with lewd and lascivious conduct. He immediately confessed.

The grand jury noted that under the school district’s code of conduct, an immediate 10-day suspension was mandatory. It didn’t happen. The grand jury noted, “The big question on the day of arrest was, ‘Should the kid play?’ Not, ‘How is the little girl?’”

The running back played, of course, in the Dec. 9, 2006, state championship game, while out on bond. He ran for 157 yards as the Bulls won a championship worth more than, say, what happened to a 14-year-old girl in the boys’ room three months earlier.

Five years later, in Pennsylvania, the prevailing question, apparently far more pressing than the welfare of nine (as of Wednesday) alleged sexual-assault victims, is whether an iconic football coach will be allowed to finish out the season. Back in 2002, so worried was he about protecting his fabled football program, he didn’t bother to ask, “How is the little boy?”

Somehow, before he was fired late Wednesday, Joe Paterno’s status as a revered football coach in our sports-warped society cast a kind of ambiguity over what the Pennsylvania police commissioner called his failure of “moral responsibility.” Sportswriters, contemplating the Penn State scandal, cited Paterno’s 409 wins and noted, as if citing a stunning moral achievement, that his program had never been caught cheating.

Outside of football, the moral equivalency here might seem a bit elusive. One of his graduate assistants told Paterno that he had seen longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky naked in the locker room showers with a 10-year-old boy. The graduate assistant told the grand jury panel that the child was held against the wall, hands apart, while Sandusky inflicted anal sex. I’m struggling to find the moral ambiguity here.

The great icon passed the information on to the athletic director, at least a watered-down version. But neither Paterno nor the grad assistant (nor the athletic director or university vice president) called the police. And somehow, as the report circulated through the university hierarchy, the rape of a 10-year-old became, in the Penn State vernacular, “horsing around.” Of course, to protect the institution, Sandusky was warned he could no longer bring the cast-off children from his foster-care charity (a convenient vehicle, the attorney general reported, for procuring victims) back onto the campus. He was allowed back, mind you. But not with kids. After all, this was the second report of Sandusky cavorting in the locker room showers with children.

“Despite a powerful eyewitness statement about the sexual assault of a child, this incident was not reported to any law enforcement or child protective agency, as required by Pennsylvania law,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly and State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said in a joint statement Saturday.

The police investigation into Sandusky’s behavior didn’t begin until employees at a local Clinton County high school learned of his behavior. The attorney general reported, “The quick action by high school staff members in Clinton County in response to reports of a possible sexual assault by Sandusky is in marked contrast to the reaction of top officials at Penn State University, who had actually received a first-hand report of a sexual attack by Sandusky seven years earlier.”

The Clinton County high school reaction was also in marked contrast to the reaction at Miami Northwestern in 2006. Of course, Northwestern had a championship to win. When championships are at stake, moral priorities change.

The Miami-Dade grand jury report noted, “Sadly, we have learned that the culture of football has permeated almost every crack and crevice of our school district.” In 2011, amend that to read: “every crack and crevice of our sad, warped, sports-addicted society.”

To read more, visit www.miamiherald.com.

Related stories from McClatchy DC