For too long, perhaps, Penn State University has lived in its own little world. It’s a school so dedicated to football its leaders turned their backs on what became one of the worst scandals in the history of college athletics. Their unhealthy idolization of their late long-time head coach Joe Paterno led to his disgrace, the incarceration of a deviant former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, who most likely will spend the rest of his life in prison, NCAA sanctions, and the dismissal of the school’s president and athletic director, both of whom are in legal jeopardy. The financial cost to the school has been substantial.
Today, though, not that many years later, the football team is again highly ranked and filling a huge stadium in one of the more difficult college towns to reach.
But with the continuing fallout over the hazing death of a young fraternity pledge, the Big Ten school and Pennsylvania taxpayers may have another costly problem on their hands - despite a judge earlier this month throwing out the most serious charges in a criminal case against members of the involved fraternity.
The prosecutor, left irate, announced he will seek to reinstate the tossed manslaughter charges by challenging the ruling of Magisterial District Judge Allen Sinclair, who took action without explaining his reasoning after days of pretrial arguments in the case against the members of Beta Theta Pi, one of the oldest fraternities in the country. Less-serious charges were left standing.
In case you missed it, the morons who occupied the Beta house appear to have encouraged 19-year-old Timothy Piazza to drink so much booze that he fell down a flight of stairs, badly injuring himself. For 12 hours, they did nothing about it, despite a sense there was something terribly wrong and the urging of at least one person present to call 911, according to the grand jury indictment. They put him on a couch, where he awoke before passing out again, and a video shows them plugging their noses against the smell of his vomit. He died a day later.
What were the frat brothers thinking? About themselves, no doubt.
But why do bad things keep happening at Penn State? One has to wonder if it has something to do with its remoteness, which perhaps protects a fraternity-and-football-focused type of culture many other schools have left for the history books. After all, what else is there to do for entertainment? Problems exist at smaller colleges as well, but rules of behavior are easier to enforce at such schools.
Hazing of freshmen, mainly by fraternities, goes back a long way. It is a self-perpetuating product of immature minds. Federal military academies banned the activity decades ago following World War II. But even today, too many college administrations give only lip service to enforcing rules against the practice.
The Betas are no longer at Penn State, banned from the campus, their house closed. Tough new rules about alcohol, including keg parties, have been instituted by the school’s president - all well and good.
But it’s too early to know the lasting impact of this tragedy, and after the judge’s watering down of the indictment, what should be a wakeup call may not sound as loudly.
Piazza’s parents are furious at the judge, and the school can expect an expensive civil suit no matter what the criminal trial produces. Someone needs to pay dearly. Those who thought about themselves rather than the youngster lying on the couch need to be held up as examples of what such foolishness costs. Obviously, this judge isn’t the one to make that happen.
Penn State might have a good football season, but Piazza and Sandusky’s victims won’t be celebrating.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.