|Joe Paterno's Penn State brand was built on doing things the right way ... and winning helped. (Getty Images)|
I have dedicated all of my professional life to the coverage of college football. I have seen crisis after crisis unfold over three decades but I have always believed there was still so much good in the sport that it would always ultimately triumph over the excesses. And there are a lot of excesses.
But as I watched events unfold last night in State College, Pa., I was hit with an overwhelming wave of sadness. For the forced retirement, resignation, firing -- whatever the hell you want to call it -- of Joe Paterno is not just a sea change for Penn State University. It is a watershed moment in the history of college athletics.
Let's be clear on this. The horrific scandal at Penn State goes way beyond college sports. In fact, to put it in the athletic context trivializes what is a human tragedy for the weakest among us and a failure of leadership on a truly sickening scale.
But the fact that these criminal acts first happened -- and then continued -- within the framework of a rich and powerful college athletic department is instructive.
It sends yet another warning to college presidents and commissioners and the NCAA and perhaps the institutions of the federal government that the time is past -- in fact, it's long past -- to show some courage and get a firmer grip on the excesses of the multibillion-dollar enterprise that is college athletics.
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The financial stakes have become so high in college athletics that the first instinct -- perhaps the only instinct -- when adversity hits is to protect the business that fills the stadium, keeps the alumni contributions rolling in and insures that coaches and administrators continue to be employed in a most comfortable fashion.
This survival instinct is now built into the DNA of these large, wealthy, insular institutions. Had the charges against Penn State been academic fraud or improper benefits instead of child molestation by a former employee, the reaction would have been the same. It would have been about containment. It's all about protecting a very, very, lucrative brand.
Decent people would hope that the reaction would be different when such a heinous crime is involved. But this closing of the ranks has become so instinctual and so ingrained into the culture of college athletics that no one would dare take it on. All of us would like to think that, faced with what Mike McQueary saw, we would have picked up a trash can and beat Jerry Sandusky until he was unconscious. Then we would have called 911 for the child and to hand over the predator to the cops.
But to be employed in a college athletic department with a $100 million budget and a 90,000-seat stadium to fill is to go to work every day fully knowing what can be lost with one wrong word or if one damaging internal secret leaks out.
And make no mistake. Penn State contained a horrible secret and protected its brand for more than a decade. The way Penn State handled this crisis showed a level of ineptitude that doesn't seem possible in an institution supposedly full of smart people. On Tuesday the Penn State president's office cancelled Joe Paterno's press conference by sending Jeff Nelson, the school's sports information director, outside with a piece of paper in his hand. The entire institution is hanging in the balance and the school still thought this was a sports story. Unbelievable.
But Wednesday was judgment day. And we are left to wonder how many more children were hurt by Penn State's lack of courage. Be assured that Penn State will pay an ever greater price for failing to show leadership and doing what eventually had to be done.
How many more times are we going to have to see this before somebody steps up and shows some leadership?
Jim Tressel lost his reputation and a Hall of Fame coaching career over a few tattoos because he did what was expedient instead of what was right.
North Carolina has seen its once pristine reputation become the butt of jokes because no one was willing to step in and challenge the excesses of the football program. Why? Because it was bad for business and the school didn't want to anger the alumni.
And now Penn State, for so long the shining example of doing it the "right way" and executing "The Grand Experiment" of academics and athletics, has been shown to have feet of clay and, because of its inaction and fear, has had to fire Joe Paterno -- the last remaining icon and, frankly, our last hope that some virtue was still left in the sport.
Earlier this year, SEC commissioner Mike Slive laid out a modest reform proposal. In those remarks, Slive said it was time for change because, "College athletics has lost the benefit of the doubt."
As the Penn State case so painfully points out, I believe it is the leaders of college athletics -- starting at the top with NCAA president Mark Emmert down to every commissioner, every athletic director and every college president -- who have lost the benefit of the doubt.
And without radical change, they are not going to get it back.
Watch The Tony Barnhart Show on Wednesday at 8 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.