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The Penn State Scandal — A Half Century Tradition of Coverups

Copyright © 2012 by David E. Ross

No, this is not about Jerry Sandusky sexually molesting students, a crime for which he has been sentenced to many years in prison. This is about top administrators covering up improper behavior in a university's football program.

The president of Pennsylvania State University lost his job. A few other top Penn State officials followed him out the door; some might still face criminal prosecution. Coach Joe Paterno's many wins were retroactively declared losses over the 13-year period 1998-2011, making him no longer the winningest coach in college football history; his statue no longer decorates the Penn State campus. Penn State was fined by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) an amount equal to a year's gross football revenues. All this is a result of what top officials did and failed to do in their attempts to protect Penn State's cherished football program from adverse publicity.

The coverup by Penn State officials, however, merely follows a long tradition of university officials trying to prevent public exposure of bad behavior by members of their football programs. Almost a half-century ago, something happened at the University of California, Los Angeles, that turned me from an avid fan of UCLA football into someone who no longer had any interest in college sports.

In the mid-1960s, I worked as a computer programmer in UCLA's Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics, both before and after receiving my BA in mathematics from UCLA. Part of my work assignment was to support the research of Dr. G (who, still being alive, I shall not further identify).

Just two years older than I am — I was in my early 20s at the time — Dr. G fancied himself not only as an academic but also a jock. For example, he played on UCLA's soccer team (not an NCAA sport at the time).

One day, I came to work and saw that Dr. G's face looked as if he had been mugged and severely beaten. No, this was not from playing any sport (unlike the dislocated shoulder he earlier suffered in a soccer game). Instead, this was the result of a dispute over a reservation for a squash court in the UCLA men's gymnasium. Dr. G and another professor had reserved the court for a game of handball. When they entered the court, two students were already using it and refused to leave. The other professor went to the gymnasium office to check the reservation and to see if staff would clear the court for him and Dr. G. While that was happening, the two students jumped Dr. G and beat him.

Dr. G filed a criminal complaint of assault and battery with the Los Angeles Police. The Chancellor of UCLA, Dr. Franklin Murphy, called Dr. G and told him he would never receive tenure if he did not withdraw the criminal charges against the students, one of whom happened to be the captain of UCLA's varsity football team. Dr. G refused to withdraw the charges. When the case came to trial, the experienced prosecutor who prepared the case was suddenly removed and replaced with a novice prosecutor who had never before tried a criminal case in court.

Dr. G shortly thereafter moved to the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), where he made a name for himself as a premier expert in astrophysics, eventually winning the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the National Medal of Science, the Shaw Prize for astronomy, and many similar awards.

Franklin Murphy proved that a top-ranked football program is more important to a university than academic excellence. Penn State merely continued that tradition. I only hope the severe sanctions imposed by the NCAA against Penn State might end that tradition, but I doubt that will happen.

23 July 2012

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