Flames of the Torch: A Cautionary Tale

State College, Pa. is in a state of shock with the news that Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was indicted on charges of sexual abuse on young boys.

The crimes were shocking enough, but Penn State’s response when the issue came up in 2002 was appalling in its own right. A graduate assistant saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy and reported what he saw to head football coach Joe Paterno. Paterno elected not to go to the police with the incident, but instead reported the issue to his supervisors, who did nothing.

In the aftermath, two top university officials were charged with perjury and are now on administrative leave.

Paterno is a college football legend and a beloved figure in the Penn State community. He won his 409th game as a head coach recently to break the NCAA record for career coaching wins. But now, he is going to be forced into retirement because of the events that have unfolded over the past week.

He’s not the first high-profile college football coach to be forced out based on events that happened under his nose. Former Ohio State head man Jim Tressel was forced to resign after it emerged that multiple players received illegal benefits under his watch.

In both cases, it’s apparent that the coaches themselves were not involved in illegal activity. But being a head coach of a major Division I revenue sport means more than putting out the best lineup on game day. They are responsible for everything that happens, from ensuring that players going to class to making sure that their assistants aren’t engaging in behavior that will land their school on the front page of the news.

St. John’s has been through its own embarrassing incidents in the recent past, when a member of the men’s basketball team was charged with assaulting a woman and another player claimed that someone on the coaching staff was paying him. These led to the firing of then-head coach Mike Jarvis, and sent the program into a downward tailspin that took years to repair.

Steve Lavin and the men’s basketball team have enjoyed success on the court while largely staying out of the headlines off the court. If the team continues its upward trajectory on the court, the pressure for success that comes with playing in a power conference in a huge media market could make it tempting for Lavin and his staff to sweep some off-court issues under the rug.

Truth be told, the team could probably benefit from overlooking some rule-bending in the short term, should it occur. Penn State and Ohio State were two of the best football teams in the Big Ten over the past decade while major violations were going unreported.

But the NCAA caught up with Ohio State, and law enforcement caught up with Penn State, eventually. Tressel and Paterno went from being heroes to pariahs nearly overnight. Now, both programs are worse off because the coaches didn’t properly report the illicit behavior that was going on under their watch.

St. John’s must not fall into the same trap of sacrificing its integrity for short-term gain that schools like Penn State and Ohio State fell into. If that means that the Red Storm will not reach the upper-tier of the Big East because they play by the rules when other teams don’t, then so be it.