Review of Wounded Lions: Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, and the Crises in Penn State Athletics

Smith, Ronald A. Wounded Lions: Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, and the Crises in Penn State Athletics. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016. Pp. xiii+259. Notes, index. $95.00 hardcover, $21.95 paperback.

 Reviewed by Colleen English

Before I begin the review, I want to mention my ties to Penn State. For nearly a decade, as both and undergraduate and graduate student, I cheered for the Nittany Lions football team in the student section of Beaver Stadium. As an alumna, I continue to root for them on Saturdays in the fall. I was a graduate student in Smith’s former department (though I never had him as a professor) when the news of Sandusky’s years-long child abuse broke and saw first-hand some of the reactions at Penn State. My affiliation to PSU continues, as I am now employed by one of the commonwealth campuses.

In 2011, Penn State dominated the news cycle, as journalists and sportscasters reported on the decades-long scandal involving child sexual abuse, former coach Jerry Sandusky, a number of Penn State administrators (including university President, Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley), and perhaps the most well-known face of Penn State, head football coach Joe Paterno. By November, many of those involved (or at least allegedly involved) in the cover-up were relieved of their university duties, including Paterno. As news of his firing spread through the campus and commonwealth, students rioted in the streets of State College. Outside the bubble of Happy Valley (as most Penn Staters know State College), many called for the NCAA to levy a “death penalty” on the Nittany Lions football program. They criticized Penn State’s lack of administrative oversight and the power of football (especially Paterno) to keep a sexual predator from punishment. Paterno himself never faced trial nor saw the outcome of this case, as he died of lung cancer in January 2012.

This story is well-known to most people in the United States. For months, the news–from 24-hour coverage like CNN to sport specific stations, like ESPN–regularly provided updates on the situation at Penn State. Though the university is now on its second head football coach since Joe Paterno and the NCAA has lifted all sanctions, the story continues to permeate the news. Recently, a new insurance coverage case alleged that Paterno knew about Sandusky’s child abuse as early as 1976.

Wounded Lions Cover

University of Illinois Press, 2016

Although information about the current state of PSU’s football program and wider athletic department is easily accessible, the history of the university, its athletic program, and how these contributed to the current scandal are less well-known. Ronald A. Smith, a professor emeritus at Penn State and a sport historian seeks to provide this overview. Wounded Lions: Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky and the Crises in Penn State Athletics looks at “the history of Penn State athletics to see whether the way Penn State athletics had been administered historically could have contributed to the worst scandal in the school’s long history and, according to some, the worst scandal in collegiate athletic history” (p. xiii). Drawing from archives at Penn State (and other universities), Smith makes a strong case that how athletics had been treated in the past has a significant impact on the current power of the department.

 

The beginning of Wounded Lions addresses the importance of place—specifically of “Happy Valley.” Happy Valley, a nickname for State College with relatively unknown origins, stands for a small town in the valley of below Mount Nittany, supposedly untouched by economic depression, called “America’s Brigadoon” by historian Dave Zang. Smith refers to it as “a place hidden away, unaffected by time and remote from reality” (p. 8). He goes on to ask, “Was Happy Valley for real?” concluding that maybe it isn’t (p. 11). Before the scandal, many saw Happy Valley as an idyllic university setting with a disciplined, successful, honorable football team and coach. Afterwards, the reality that horrendous crimes could be covered for so long set it. As Smith relates, “like many fairy tales, it has its dark side” (p. 11).

Throughout the rest of the book, Smith focuses on the control of athletics at Penn State (as it moved from student-run, to alumni-controlled, to academically oriented, and finally, to an independent business unit) and, particularly, at the role of the university president in the administration of sport. At first, as in many places, sport was under the purview of students. They organized and fundraised athletics. However, in 1892, the students invited the alumni to help oversee athletics, in part so that they could have greater financial support. Finally, by 1907, the alumni gained total control of athletics. Again, like other colleges, Penn State’s faculty never really controlled sport at the university.

Smith argues that in the early 20th century, the Alumni Association guided the football team, particularly in the hiring of the new football coach, Hugo Bezdek. A former University of Chicago player under legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bezdek was a young, talented coach who won often, much like Joe Paterno would do years later. Also like Paterno, Bezdek was admired throughout the community, courted by other schools and professional teams, and led the way for the expansion of the athletic facilities at Penn State.

But, Bezdek could not provide victories against Penn State’s closest rival, the University of Pittsburgh, much to the embarrassment of alumni in that city. Eventually, the alumni called for Bezdek’s firing, leading to institutional changes in the control of athletics that lasted until 1980. The alumni, in their overriding desire to oust Bezdek, eventually agreed with the president at the time, Ralph Dorn Hetzel, to bring intercollegiate sport into an academic unit, the School of Physical Education and Athletics, with an alumni Board of Athletic Control only officially having an advisory role.

The academic control of athletics stayed in place until Paterno moved to isolate athletics in 1979. Despite the fact that Paterno was a key player in moving athletics away from academics, he also played a role in “Grand Experiment,” where recruited athletes had to meet the same academic standards as other students at the university. Though Paterno did not start the Grand Experiment, he publicly supported it and tied it to his image. Smith argues that the football program found significant success during these years and that Penn State athletics grew to national prominence alongside the growing success of the Department of Physical Education.

In 1979, Paterno and two members of the business office, Steve Garban and Bob Patterson, convinced the university president, John Oswald, to sever athletics from academics and create an athletic department under the business office. This move ensured that athletic funds would stay within athletics (and not directly benefit the physical education department) and placed Paterno as the new athletic director. After this decision, athletics was isolated from physical education. Not all agreed with this decision, including Dean of the College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation Robert Scannell and associate dean Karl Stoedefalke. The move was permanent, however, and athletic remains unaffiliated with a specific academic unit at Penn State (as is the case at most other major Division I programs).

Smith points to this pivotal moment in Penn State’s athletic history as an important factor in the developing scandal. According to him, “The removal and isolation of athletics from academics may very well have contributed to questionable if not illegal actions taken by individuals at Penn State in the Sandusky Scandal” (p. 75).

In the next few chapters, Smith addresses the contemporary scandal at Penn State, tying it to the history of athletics. Some of what is covered reiterates the stories already told throughout the media. Smith discusses the on-campus incidents of child sexual abuse perpetrated by Sandusky, the role of Sandusky’s charity for children in need–the Second Mile–, the Board of Trustees, the grand jury proceedings, and the NCAA’s consent decree that levied harsh sanctions on Penn State’s football program. He even ties the scandal and a “culture of silence” to former women’s basketball coach Rene Portland (Portland had a long standing policy of “no lesbians” on her team and resigned after a lawsuit in 2005).

Smith’s understanding of the scandal at Penn State within the larger context of athletic history at the university not only demonstrates that the environment that creates a scandal takes many years to develop, but also that understanding contemporary issues requires a look back at history. One of the strengths of Wounded Lions is Smith’s commitment to using archival primary sources to tell the story of Penn State athletics. Drawing from the university’s archive (along with those of 12 other university and conference archives, including the Alabama, Cornell, Georgia Tech, Harvard, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Wisconsin, NCAA Headquarters, and Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference), Smith is able to get a variety of perspectives from within the organization. Additionally, his role as a faculty at Penn State, within the Department of Physical Education, gives Smith an “insider” status, allowing him to present a unique perspective. Smith is even able to draw from his own meeting notes during Penn State athletics’ move from an academic unit to an independent business unit.

However, some may view Smith’s insider status as a liability in criticizing Penn State athletics in the wake of the Sandusky Scandal. For those that believe Penn State football should have received the “death penalty,” Smith’s critique of the NCAA and Penn State President Rodney Erickson’s acceptance of the sanctions might read as overly supportive of athletics at the university. Indeed, Smith calls the punishments doled out by the NCAA “draconian” and something the organization could not do legally (p. 139). Additionally, he critiques Erickson’s decision to accept these punishments, saying “His almost complete lack of knowledge of the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association […] led to what has been termed the worst decision in his short tenure at Penn State” (p. 139). Despite Smith’s critique of the NCAA and its sanctions, he does not argue that Penn State is above reproach and believes that Sandusky’s continued presence even after allegations in 1998 and 2001 was, at least in part, a failure by university leaders (including Paterno). Looking back at the history of sport at Penn State, Smith determines that the Sandusky Scandal developed out of a decades-long culture of silence, insularity, and freedom from serious institutional oversight.

Overall, Wounded Lions presents strong evidence that the Sandusky Scandal cannot be limited merely to the coach’s transgressions. Smith makes a compelling case for his argument and bolsters it with archival materials and his personal experience at Penn State. Wounded Lions, with its specific focus on football at Penn State is appealing to readers interested in the historical dimensions of the scandal. Additionally, those not necessarily seeking more information about Penn State may find Smith’s analysis useful for developing a greater understanding of big-time college sport and the potential for controversy that develops within a system largely free from the checks and balances of the university.

Colleen English is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Penn State Berks. You can reach her at cue113@psu.edu or on Twitter @colleen_english.

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