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Normally, the noise you hear coming from Penn State University this time of year is at Beaver Stadium, home of the Nittany Lion football team. Head coach Joe Paterno has built a respected program over the years. Unfortunately, that program and the university itself are dealing with a different noise now.
Over the weekend, former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15 year span. Sandusky retired abruptly from the Nittany Lion program in 1999. The charges against him are serious, but what happened behind the scenes at the university is just as deplorable.
Penn State director of athletics Tim Curley and former interim senior vice president for business and finance Gary Schultz were each charged with one count of perjury and one count of failure to report suspected child abuse. Both were arraigned and released on bail Nov. 7.
According to the grand jury’s findings, both Curley and Schultz were aware that Sandusky engaged in “sexual conduct” with a young boy in a shower located in the Lasch Football Building and did not notify police. The charges go even higher.
Penn State president Graham Spanier and Paterno both appeared before the grand jury during the investigation, which began in January 2009. Neither have been charged, but it is clear that both knew about the incidents.
Perjury, failure to report a suspected case of child abuse, and a university that did nothing about it, is a trifecta of public relations and legal trouble. Penn State is being slammed by reporters, both in the news and sports world. Child abuse victims groups are circling. Spanier, in a bad PR move, released a statement on Saturday in support of Curley and Schultz.
Obviously, this could have been avoided if Penn State had acted swiftly against Sandusky. But the incidents continued even after he retired from the program. Still, the university didn’t budge.
Lying within an organization will always be uncovered. That is why in public relations, we talk about being open with our clients. However, when a scandal goes all the way to the university president’s office, it’s hard to uphold honesty. And that’s not an excuse, it’s an unfortunate reality.
On Tuesday, Paterno was scheduled to speak about this week’s football game against Nebraska. The news conference was canceled by Spanier, just hours before it was to be held, according to Scott Paterno, Joe’s son. This was another bad PR move, not just for Penn State, but by a school president on icy ground.
Penn State will be forever branded by this. Even Paterno, who is an institution at Penn State and sports, isn’t immune to criticism and blame. This incident will hurt his legacy. No amount of good public relations will help the university now.
And it is tough, right now, to see it work in the future.