The Sandusky scandal was, is and always will be an epic tragedy. One with children allegedly as the violated victims, multiple times over.
The pending trial, set to begin June 5 with jury selection, ultimately will determine his fate. Sandusky is charged with 52 counts of abusing 10 boys.
But in the numbing, wrenching darkness of last November, who could have foreseen so many good things emerging from something so mind-bogglingly horrific?
In a word, Penn State is making a most welcome and overdue transformation. New PSU president Rodney Erickson, who inherited the scandal fallout, declared openness to be a new school policy shortly after taking over.
One word launched a refreshing new era.
The actions of the PSU Board of Trustees (more on them later) and Ivory Tower inner workings all too often seemed - and were - inaccessible. But when something like Sandusky happens, such secretiveness simply cannot be tolerated anymore.
"Government in the sunshine" always is a good thing. Accountability is paramount.
Now we have a PSU website (http://openness.psu.edu/) specifically dedicated to maintaining such a policy of openness. The transition is under way.
There will be fits and starts as the Penn State monolith grows into this new state of openness, like a glacier changing course after grinding in the same direction for centuries. It will be clumsy for awhile - the university can't become a paragon of openness overnight.
Openness was needed pre-Sandusky, and it is essential post-Sandusky. That it took Sandusky to make it happen is terrible, but thankfully it is happening.
2. The beautiful, if overwhelmingly sad, rediscovery of what made Joe Paterno, Joe Paterno.
When something, or someone, is a bedrock for so long (soooooooo long), well, it's not that you take it for granted, but, well, you take it for granted.
As the world dissected the vile Sandusky matter looking for dirt on Paterno (and there were some missteps to be found), and as any and all Paterno detractors and enemies took turns tossing grenades his way, an incredible thing happened:
Paterno never for a moment betrayed the values he had always espoused, even as he was being widely brutalized by the media, fired by Penn State and diagnosed with terminal cancer - in a span of days.
He never flinched, never made excuses, never lashed out, never pointed fingers, never wavered from the integrity and class he had always demonstrated, while living out the final weeks of his exceptional life.
Nothing he has said or done related to the scandal - including his mistakes - has been factually refuted. Though the journalists are still digging (Esquire magazine is the latest to weigh in) and will continue to do so.
It was truly extraordinary. He was who he was purported to be, until the end.
3. National widespread awareness of child sexual abuse has heightened tremendously, which is a great thing.
Sandusky was far from the first coach to use his power to abuse children, just the latest to be exposed. But for several reasons - mainly his connection to Paterno - his case struck The Big Nerve in the national media and national consciousness.
The scandal reached a tipping point almost instantaneously, with the force and velocity of an avalanche during the course of a mere weekend. Bam! Suddenly everyone everywhere was at least a little bit more aware that these horrific things happen, and that we all must be more vigilant in guarding against it.
It seems a little naive to believe that Sandusky alone could cause a sea change in societal awareness of such abuse. But try to find someone who doesn't know about Sandusky and isn't now more alert to finding, reporting and following through on such things.
We all are. Sandusky has done that.
On the flip side, some other abuse victims were inspired by Sandusky's alleged victims and stepped forward to the media or law enforcement. Hopefully the domino effect continues, and more victims find the courage to speak up and stop their abusers.
4. People have responded with financial contributions to worthy causes.
It seems uncouth to highlight money raised because victims may have suffered, as if that will make up for it somehow. But the fact is every worthy cause needs financial support, and Penn Staters have tapped into their bank accounts en masse.
On campus and in the alumni community, donations to abuse organizations such as RAINN have been impressive (more than half a million dollars to RAINN alone).
This spring, THON showed, as it always does, what Penn State is about at its best, raising a record $10 million-plus for pediatric cancer, inspired in part by widespread emotional reaction to the scandal and the Paterno family's efforts following the death of JoePa in January.
Think about that: An annual student philanthropic event raising $10 million in one year. It's incomprehensible.
In a terrible economy, amidst the gripping and demoralizing Sandusky crisis, people responded to a commitment to make things better, in ways small, large and grandiose.
That is "We Are Penn State" personified.
5. Mechanisms for reporting abuse on campus have been overhauled, and many other schools, communities, businesses and organizations have revisited and revamped procedures.
It's too late for so many victims, of course, but creating a culture where everyone has a better understanding of abuse and how to thwart it is essential to Penn State's identity and recovery, and is critical in society everywhere.
In the slew of Sandusky/Paterno stories in November's chaotic aftermath, two that stood out came from experts in the field of abuse and human behavior. One claimed Paterno did more than most in the same position would have done with regard to reporting what Mike McQueary told him (Paterno reported it to his superiors, but not police). Another said roughly three percent of the populace would have done more than Paterno did in the same situation.
That's it: a lousy three percent.
Paterno was harshly and stridently criticized for not doing more. He said he wished he had done more. He should have, at the very least, followed up much more stringently. And yet, according to some experts, he did more than most would have done.
That is a confounding assertion, because virtually everyone is outraged by child abuse. But how many actually act on suspicions, or report what they know to police, or their superiors, and then follow-up on it? Apparently, extraordinarily few.
Which makes sense on one regard. It helps explain why so many abusers aren't caught until they've perpetrated many, many acts of abuse. And when they are caught, it's usually due to a victim coming forward, not a witness. That must change.
6. The serendipitous strike of good fortune that the guy who accepted the mantle from the suddenly and shockingly deposed Penn State president Graham Spanier was so ready for the role. (update Oct. 2012: After his blind acceptance of the Freeh Report, and his buckling at the blackmail of the NCAA and Mark Emmert, it has become clar that Erickson, no matter how good he has appeared when addressing the camera, is not a strong leader and acts hastily under pressure, and might be little more than a puppet for the BOT.)
Probably 99 percent of Penn Staters, and about 99.9 percent of Pennsylvanians, had no idea who Rodney Erickson was prior to the second week in November despite his three-and-a-half decade tenure at the school.
We do now. And we're impressed, so far.
Steady and sure-handed. Seemingly humble yet no wallflower. Swift to act but not to overreact. Direct and forthcoming, not slick and politician-like. Resolute and composed.
Erickson, 65, gracefully endured the onslaught of outrage from Penn Staters over the scandal and its aftermath. He's reminiscent of your genial grandfather - if gramps was a former geography professor and president of the state university.
Erickson was not preparing for this role, was not positioning himself to slide from provost (chief academic officer) to president. But somehow he was ready anyway, literally on a moment's notice, and he was willing. Willing to inherit a catastrophic crisis. That's our kind of guy.
A few missteps aside - such as his comment early on about de-emphasizing athletics, which was clarified to mean he wants more emphasis placed on other things, not less on athletics - Erickson has calmly yet firmly guided Penn State through this unprecedented era.
That said, Erickson is not a long-term solution. Though his interim tag quickly was removed in November, he will be president for just a fraction as long as Spanier. The next president probably should be someone from outside of PSU. Erickson is similar to Tom Bradley, who held the football team together until Bill O'Brien was hired.
But Erickson, PSU's 17th president, has been the right guy at the right time. He has helped stabilize a most unstable situation, provide direction and lift morale. Which is as much as anyone could have hoped for when he ascended to the job.
7. Sandusky shined a floodlight on how widespread abuse is in the sports culture.
Among those widely accused of child sexual abuse in recent years, and in some cases convicted, are:
- tennis legend Bob Hewitt
- sports columnist Bill Conlin
- longtime former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine
- longtime (47 years) Red Sox clubhouse manager Donald Fitzpatrick (convicted)
- famed Canadian junior hockey coach Graham James (convicted)
- AAU basketball president and CEO Bobby Dodd.
And that's just an abridged list of the semi-famous. Hundreds of towns and schools across America have similar stories on lesser-known but equally sickening levels, of coaches abusing kids.
Checks and balances must always be in place where children are under adult supervision, and the coach-player relationship, with its power dynamic, is particularly ripe for grooming for such abuse. No one should be above these checks and balances when kids cross paths with adults. But Sandusky's status as a legendary coach clearly played a role in his alleged acts.
Because of Sandusky, parents and administrators now are more alert. Background checks will be more thorough. No one will be exempted. Cracks in the system, where the cockroaches lurked, are being filled.
Abusers are finding the world a tougher place to operate in. And as was mentioned above, victims are reporting with increased frequency.
Fine, Conlin and Dodd's accusers all came forward post-Sandusky, as have many more Fitzpatrick accusers. Surely the Red Sox and all of Major League Baseball are much more proactive about abuse because of Fitzpatrick, just as college athletic departments are because of Sandusky. The positive ripple effects continue.
8. A tremendous awakening, uniting and spirited debate from the Penn State community - and a desire to overhaul the Board of Trustees
Spurred by Sandusky and buoyed by social media, Penn Staters by the tens of thousands have become re-engaged with the university.
The school now belongs a little more to the students, faculty/staff and alumni, and a little less to the tight confederacy of self-appointed big-timers at the top of the BOT totem pole, than it did last November.
Who knew the PSU Board of Trustees was so self-serving and misdirected, and had defectively designed the highest administrative levels of Penn State? Read the following from former BOT member Ben Novak for some alarming insight into the structure and operations of the Board: http://www.bennovak.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Reflections-of-a-Former-Trustee.pdf
Yes, surely some well-connected and super-involved Penn Staters (such as Novak) knew a lot about the Board's problematic culture. But the average alum had no idea.
What we knew was that the university seemed to be, by most traditionally meaningful measures, doing very well. And it was largely scandal free. And its leadership had been in place a long time.
So, the BOT must be doing a good job, eh? Uh, oops.
Last summer, then-president Spanier toured Florida, speaking in a few nice locales to large gatherings of alums. He spoke about the resounding success of the school's online degree programs, satellite campuses and alumni; about the continuing fiscal challenges due to the economy and state budget cuts; and about Penn State's inexorable march toward becoming a virtually private public university.
He did magic tricks for the first five minutes, perhaps 10 (no kidding). And at the end he fielded the inevitable, requisite questions about Joe Paterno's future.
It was hunky-dory. Copacetic.
Likely no one in the room, with the exception of Spanier, had any clue about the nuclear bomb set to detonate in November.
That explosion ultimately exposed the Board, and Penn Staters became engaged in the doings of the people representing their school. It took Sandusky to reveal the Board's fatal deficiencies, and the Board, with its bizarre communicative structure, surely helped abet Sandusky's abuse - a vicious cycle if there ever was.
Can Penn Staters sustain interest in reconfiguring and monitoring the Board? Will they pay attention long enough to actually change the Board from simply being another vehicle for a small cartel of extremely rich and power-hungry alums to exert their influence?
Time will tell.
9. Bill O'Brien
Joe Paterno was 84 years old last football season. Penn State was going to need a new football coach very soon, Sandusky scandal or no Sandusky scandal.
The issue was addressed ad nauseam in this blog last September/October. The 2011 season was going to be Paterno's last, in all likelihood. Who would succeed him?
It wouldn't have been Bill O'Brien, that's for sure. Others such as Bradley, the longtime defensive coordinator, Greg Schiano, Kirk Ferentz and Al Golden were much stronger possibilities. All had a place in line far ahead of O'Brien.
The scandal changed all that and made O'Brien a viable candidate.
So what has happened since the relatively unknown and never-been-a-head-coach-before O'Brien was anointed JoePa's successor in early January? He has thus far proven himself perhaps the best man for the job.
Or at least as good as anyone out there. Anyone. Take your pick of the best of the best in football coaching - Jim Harbaugh, Nick Saban, Sean Payton, Urban Meyer (yes, he has become a total weenie, but he does have two national titles), Bob Stoops, Jon Gruden, Mack Brown, Pete Carroll, Mike Tomlin, Tom Coughlin, Tony Dungy, et al.
Who would have done better than O'Brien so far?
None of them. He has been magnificent. Superlative. And any other totally awesome adjective.
He might be the total package. We'll find out when he actually begins coaching football games. But he's great at everything else so far.
Bradley, the longtime PSU defensive coordinator, is an outstanding coach who did a commendable job in extraordinary circumstances as the interim coach at the end of last season. He would have been a good choice to succeed Paterno had things proceeded normally and Sandusky never happened.
O'Brien is better.
Now, O'Brien has got a long, long way to go. He'll be hard-pressed to match the on-field success of any of the aforementioned coaches. And he'll always be compared to the best ever, of course - Paterno. But he's got the chops, the gumption, the perspective, to make Penn State football exceptional again.
Penn State might not seem stronger yet, or better off, not with the Sandusky wound so raw.
Not with thoughts of alleged victims so fresh. And not with more Sandusky-related ugliness forthcoming - the trial, the release of the investigations, and anything and everything else (such as Mike McQueary's lawsuit against the school).
The scar will linger like it was inflicted with a branding iron.
But Penn State is stronger and better in some ways, even if it can't be recognized or acknowledged for awhile. Also, many other people and institutions not connected to Penn State are better as well, in some ways, because of Sandusky.
It can never undo what was done. But it is something, something good.