Lance Fortnow now has a post up about how wonderful Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno were, and how sorry he is to see them go.
For what it’s worth, I take an extremely different view. I’d be thrilled to see the insane football culture at many American universities—the culture that Spanier and Paterno epitomized—brought down entirely, and some good might yet come of the Penn State tragedy if it helps that happen. Football should be, as it is at MIT, one of many fine extracurricular activities that are available to interested students (alongside table tennis, glassblowing, robot-building…), rather than a primary reason for a university’s existence.
What’s interesting about the current scandal is precisely that it establishes some finite upper bound on what people will tolerate, and thereby illustrates just what it takes for the public to turn on its football heroes. Certainly the destruction of academic standards doesn’t suffice (are you kidding?). More interestingly, sexism, sexual harassment, and “ordinary” rape—offenses that have brought down countless male leaders in other fields—barely even make a dent in public consciousness where football stars are concerned. With child rape, by contrast, one can actually find a non-negligible fraction of Americans who consider it comparable in gravity to football. (Though, as the thousands of rioting Penn State students reminded us, that’s far from a universal opinion.) Many commentators have already made the obvious comparisons to the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal, and the lesson for powerful institutions the world over is indeed a similar one: sure, imprison Galileo; by all means stay silent during the Holocaust; but don’t protect pedophiles—cross that line, and your otherwise all-forgiving constituents might finally turn on you.
I should say that both of my parents are Penn State grads, and they’re both disgusted right now with the culture of hooliganism there—a culture that was present even in the late 60s and early 70s, but that’s become much more dominant since. To the many of you at Penn State who want a university that’s more than an adjunct to a literally-rapacious football program, you have this blog’s admiration and support as you struggle to reclaim your great institution. Go for the touchdown—WOOOOO!