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Penn State mess reveals an environment ripe for abuse

You don't need to understand the moral cesspool that is U.S. college sports to comprehend the events this week in a part of the country that can never again be called Happy Valley.

You sure don't need to be a Penn State alumnus or football fan. Nor do you need to understand the romance Americans attach to the iconic image of the legendary head coach standing on the sidelines of a college football game, all wizened and hounds-toothed or baseball capped. Oh great moulder of young men.

No, being a parent is enough. Reading through the 23-page U.S. grand jury indictment that led to the firing Wednesday night of 84-year-old Joe Paterno and the disassembling of his first tier of aiders and abettors in a sex scandal that threatens to bring down a monolithic college sports program? That, too, is enough.

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And perhaps most disturbing for those of us who really don't give a damn about somebody's stupid football program, the sad sight of what appear to be student-aged rioters taking to the streets in support of a disgraced old man who, as the winningest coach in U.S. college football history, would by definition be a canny operative who knew everything about everything in his program, who had eyes and ears everywhere and knew where all the bodies were buried yet couldn't be bothered taking the keys to the office away from an alleged sexual predator named Jerry Sandusky? That, too, is enough.

At some point, we all let our kids go into a world of more powerful and older vested interests. And vapid though the United States' love of college sports may be, Canadians should not feel morally superior. Ask Theo Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy: We, too, have our monsters.

Some of us trundle off our kids to faraway towns where they earn a pittance to play junior hockey, travelling in buses and staying in hotels, lining the pockets of older men and furthering the careers of other older men. You steel them for those first tenuous steps out the door. You perform the parental balancing act of doling out a heaping helping of cold, hard reality without killing their youthful optimism. And then you read a story about some assistant coach getting his jollies watching a 15-year-old boy dragging a water bottle around with his genitals as part of a hazing ritual, hearing one of the team's players explain to a national broadcaster in an interview that, "It's a hockey thing."

But that's not really what the Penn State story is about. The victims aren't college athletes. They aren't students. They're not even teenagers. If the allegations are true, this case is about a predator using his role in an athletic program to find new victims, using his position with the football team to set up a charitable foundation that put him in daily contact with at-risk youth and helped loose him on a community in retirement while allowing him access to facilities as recently as last week.

It took three years for the U.S. grand jury investigation to find that Sandusky had sexually assaulted eight young boys, having a long-term relationship with two of them and, in the case of six other victims, sharing showers with them in the same building that houses the Penn State football program.

Nobody thinks the muck and mire will get anything but deeper. Matt Millen, a Penn State alumnus and star player and former NFL player and executive, spoke about "a freight train coming." There is a lesson, here, about what happens when places of education deify somebody who became larger than life on the backs of cheap labour and exploitation, which is precisely what big-time, college sports is all about. But will it be heard?

Not in the United States. You'd like to think that the loss of an icon is a positive sign that there is a chipping away of the hokey, romantic layer that covers up a festering, seamy, tawdry business, but there are no blinders like those handed out by alma mater.

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The United States may be a growing pile of failed too-big-too-fail institutions, but this isn't one of them. About the only good thing is that in one place some of the adults decided their kids were more important than a football game, that having a guy with buildings named after him and statues erected in his honour say, "Hey, wow, it's too bad about what happened to junior in my building, but I'm too busy trying to win football games to make a follow-up phone call," wasn't good enough. Sometimes, that's all a parent can ask for.

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