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“Football runs this University.” – How Sport Culture Enabled Rape at Penn State

“I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away…”

That’s how former Penn State Head Football Coach Joe Paterno explained his failure to notify the authorities of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assault of a young boy.

But as the Freeh report released last week concluded, it wasn’t the university’s procedure Paterno was afraid to jeopardize, but its reputation.

After all, to be consistent with the law, university procedure should have required Paterno to speak up.

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (aka “the Clery Act”) requires colleges and universities to publicly disclose the number of reports of criminal offenses—including sexual assaults—that occur on their campuses each year.

Under the Clery Act, Paterno had a legal obligation to inform the proper authorities after learning of the sexual assault an assistant coach had witnessed. Instead, Paterno sat on the report. He even delayed speaking with his supervisors so as not to “interfere with their weekends.”

Ultimately, Paterno and then-University President Graham Spanier decided not to report the sexual assault to campus police. The Department of Education is now investigating potential Clery Act violations at Penn State.

In addition to their failure to report, Paterno and Spanier neglected to investigate the assault: to determine the identity of the victim, take action to protect him, and remove Sandusky from Penn State facilities. As a result, they “provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims.”

This “consistent disregard [for the] welfare of Sandusky’s child victims” points to a deliberate practice of valuing the university’s football program over children’s—or students’—safety. Indeed, the Freeh report specifically noted that “a culture of reverence for the football program…. [was responsible] for [the] failure to protect…victims.”

This bizarre moral compass may help explain earlier eyebrow-raising disciplinary decisions regarding Penn State football players:

In 2002, a player who admitted to sexual assault was allowed to play in a bowl game during his two-semester suspension.

In 2004, another player facing criminal charges for sexual assault was allowed to avoid suspension merely by agreeing to stay away from football facilities.

Indeed, a former administrator in charge of disciplinary affairs says the football program exerted its unchecked power to guarantee minimal punishments for players.

If Penn State has protected football players and coaches at the expense of victims of sexual violence, it could be in violation of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education and ensures victims of sexual violence access to a safe education. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has made clear that schools may not employ different procedures for sexual assault complaints involving student athletes and non-athletes.

That’s why last December the National Women’s Law Center joined other organizations in calling for the OCR to conduct a much needed Title IX compliance review regarding how Penn State handles reports of sexual violence.

Although the circumstances of the Sandusky case were (hopefully) unusual, the campus culture that enabled Sandusky to thrive was not. As one janitor put it while explaining why he didn’t report the abuse he witnessed: “Football runs this University.” Surely the same can be said about many other campuses across the country.

Every football powerhouse school would do well to learn from Penn State’s poor example—in the end, universities that prioritize the competitive edge over protecting victims of sexual violence risk losing something more than just their federal funding: that same image and prestige they worked so shamelessly to protect in the first place.

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