Tom Osborne’s longtime friendship with Penn State football coach Joe Paterno isn’t the only reason Nebraska’s athletic director has followed the PSU child sexual abuse case closely.
In 1991, Osborne and his wife, Nancy, founded TeamMates, a school-based mentoring program for adult volunteers to build relationships with students “so as to help them reach their full potential.”
In a creepy coincidence, the words “help young people achieve their potential” are prominent on the website of The Second Mile — the youth organization that former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky used as a grooming area for victims for his abuse.
Osborne, in an interview, didn’t talk about The Second Mile. But he has strong feelings on how a mentoring program should be run.
“We have always prioritized safety as our No. 1 issue,” he said. “Any time you are dealing with kids, you have to be very conscious of potential abuse. This is why we have a school-based program.”
Osborne said occasionally a mentor and student will meet for a function outside of school.
“In those cases, we require a third party to always be present,” he said. “That person must be over 18. And we have to have written approval for the activity by the parents.
“So we feel we’ve done everything in that respect to minimize danger. And we do exhaustive background checks of our mentors.”
Kudos to the Osborne family for creating an underrated state treasure in TeamMates, built on smart, common-sense rules.
Yet if such checks and balances are missing in a children’s program, someone needs to speak up loudly. That didn’t happen at Penn State, with tragic results. The hope now, Osborne said, is the facts of that case will help prevent other such brutality.
“The good that can come from this is a heightened awareness of these types of issues,” he said. “University athletic departments and the general public have made moves to improve oversight.
“There has been quite a bit done in our athletic department. I doubt if there is anybody who works in our department who isn’t aware of what they should do if something like this came to their attention.”
But the power that football holds in our society and the blind loyalty the sport engenders can create an intoxicating mix.
Penn State fanatics continue to defend Paterno with all kinds of literary gymnastics, despite the damning facts of the Freeh report.
The hate mail I received after opining last week that the Big Ten strongly needs to reconsider Penn State’s membership status showed that some will remain willfully ignorant of what the Nittany Lions’ almighty coach did and didn’t do.
Frankly, it was disappointing to hear Osborne’s comment about whether the Freeh report changed his mind about Paterno’s legacy.
“I think you have to look at a person’s life in totality,” Osborne said. “You can’t necessarily frame your opinion or your legacy regarding a person just on one aspect of what might have happened.”
About 99 percent of the time, I would agree with Osborne on that stance. And I can see his rationale.
But this isn’t jaywalking or embezzlement or first-degree burglary. This is a 14-year cover-up of child sexual abuse, which enabled the abuser to strike again and again.
I repeat, this was at least 45 counts of child sexual abuse that started in 1998.
Paterno’s legacy is permanently stained. The statue of him outside the stadium needs to come down.
More important, the closed society that is Happy Valley and the closed public record books that Penn State President (and former Nebraska chancellor) Graham Spanier battled to keep locked need to be pried open.
Light needs to be shined on every aspect of this putrid mess to make sure that rich and powerful people can never again shift their brains into park when confronted with a crisis that threatens their position and institution, while ignoring helpless victims.
Why? Because children’s lives depend on it. God save us all if anything else trumps that.
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