I was cleaning my kitchen after finishing up dinner Friday night as ESPN droned on in the background. Suddenly, I dropped what I was doing and rushed to the TV set to catch two ESPN reporters breathlessly relaying the facts surrounding the jury verdict just announced moments earlier about 9:30 p.m. in a court in Bellafonte, Pa.
As the world now knows, the jury found Jerry Sandusky guilty on 45 of 48 counts related to the sexual abuse of 10 young men over a period of several years. Sandusky faces a maximum of 442 years in prison. Several of the charges carry minimum jail sentences but it is almost certain that the 68-year-old former Penn State football assistant coach will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Sandusky was immediately taken into custody and taken to the Centre County jail, where he will be held until a sentencing hearing is conducted in 60 to 90 days. I was struck by the atmosphere outside the courthouse in the moments after the verdicts were announced. People were cheering as if they were at a college football pep rally. When two officials escorted Sandusky out of the courthouse and placed him in a police vehicle the crowd booed and hooted. When lead defense attorney, Joseph Amendola, spoke to reporters outside the courthouse the crowd booed en masse when he stated that his client continues to maintain his innocence. A casual viewer might have briefly thought that a major sporting event had just ended.
Later the evening news outlets dutifully reported the written statements issued by the family of former Penn State football coach and icon, Joe Paterno, and the university’s administration. Both statements essentially praised the process that had run its course and expressed hope that healing could now begin for the victims and their families.
I was struck by a feeling of emptiness as I contemplated the aftermath of the trial. People in the crowd outside of the courthouse were almost taunting Amendola as he spoke. The fact is that the trial was proof that the American legal system can proceed in an orderly fashion and bring about just results. Amendola took on a case that he knew would brand him as a villain in many people’s eyes. He conducted a vigorous and aggressive defense, as he was ethically obligated to do.
Our justice system functions because of the fact that both the guilty and the innocent are given their day in court. Prosecutors in this case, led by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, had to abide by established rules in presenting their case. These procedures help ensure that all defendants have an opportunity to present a defense. The state cannot simply put people behind bars based solely on assurances that justice is being served.
In truth, there are no winners in this case. The victims are left trying to put their lives back together again. The fact that they will at some point settle civil cases for large sums of money seems to be a hollow victory. It may take years for them to heal the scars from what happened to them as young men.
The Sandusky family will have to live with the stigma of this crime. It came out as the trial ended that an adopted son of Sandusky’s had been prepared to testify that his father had sexually abused him when he was a teenager. This news probably kept the defense from putting Sandusky on the witness stand. If he had testified and denied all accusations the son would have been called by the state as a rebuttal witness. Imagine the pain and anger being felt today by members of the Sandusky family. How will they ever get past this.
The legacies of Joe Paterno and Penn State remain tarnished. Testimony at trial clearly showed that a number of people associated with the university had reason to intervene over the years and perhaps stop Sandusky’s actions. The fact that they remained silent is difficult to explain. A former vice president and athletic director still face criminal charges for allegedly lying to the grand jury in this case.
Penn State officials recently estimated that this scandal has already cost the school $10 million. By the time all of the legal dust settles, perhaps two or three years from now, the final financial cost to the university will be several times that amount. Even though much of this money will have been paid by insurance companies, the school will have suffered significant economic and non-economic losses that will take years to recover from.
Some commentators are saying that this trial and scandal will resonate across the country and that people will use this as a warning that all of us need to take steps to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again. Maybe so. Yet today there are people in State College, Pa., who think that Joe Paterno was “railroaded” and treated badly. There are factions of Penn State students who feel their school and community have been unfairly singled out.
There are assuredly some people who think that this entire situation has been magnified out of proportion and that at least some of the victims were more motivated by the prospect of “getting rich” than by anything else. Amendola is busy preparing post-trial motions and planning for an appeal, which could take at least two years to run its course.
We have already heard from other young men who were involved with The Second Mile organization Sandusky founded in 1977. Several of them have spoken about the help they received from Sandusky and the organization. One of the likely casualties of all of this will be this organization, which very well may not survive all of the negative publicity. It is easy to forget right now that many young men’s lives were impacted for good by people working with the group.
And what about the wider world of sports? It is likely that adult volunteers with youth sports organizations across the country will have to reassess policies in the wake of this sordid mess. Some people may hesitate to volunteer their time for fear that something they say or do may be misinterpreted. Organizations that work with young people may find it harder to solicit funds from a skeptical public.
We should be glad that one person who preyed upon young people will now spend the rest of his life locked away. We should continue to pray that his victims and their families will find peace as time goes on. We need to remember, however, that the college games we play will and should go on. On the other hand, the overriding lesson we can learn is to keep games in their proper perspective. We are a nation based on the rule of law—college football or any other sport does not rule. Games should be part of what we do, and not the definition of who we are.
Dr. Greg Tyler, Esq., is The Sport Digest editor and the Library Director/Archivist at the United States Sports Academy. Before joining the Academy, Tyler practiced law for a number of years. He also currently teaches online classes on sports issues at the Academy and in the past Tyler has lectured on intellectual property law.