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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  Fair
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How UW resembles Penn State


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The report prepared by former FBI director Louis Freeh (PDF) on how Penn State officials reacted to reports of sexual assault by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is 162 pages long, plus exhibits and appendixes. It is excruciatingly detailed, much of it as heartbreaking as it is blood-boiling.

Chapter 10 of the report is dedicated to recommendations for Penn State administrators and was referenced directly by NCAA president Mark Emmert at a Monday press conference at which he levied unprecedented sanctions against the school. In that chapter, Freeh writes, "For the past several decades, the university's athletic department was permitted to become a closed community.... The athletic department was perceived by many in the Penn State community as 'an island,' where staff members lived by their own rules."

That, in essence, is Freeh's explanation for how an inexcusable cover-up of such horrific crimes came to be engineered by athletic administrators at a school where the football program was perceived as too important, its coach's legacy too storied, to fail. This week, leaders of colleges around the country, including UW-Madison, should be asking if that's a description that fits their own bloated athletic departments.

In reading Freeh's recommendations, I was reminded of an interview with Jeremi Suri, a former UW-Madison history professor and athletic board member, in December 2007. A dissenting voice on the board, Suri constantly pushed for more university oversight of the athletic department, but resigned from the board when it grew clear his arguments were falling on deaf ears.

"I sometimes think in my worst moments that the athletic department now is where the Pentagon was at the beginning of the Afghanistan war," Suri said. "It looks really good right now and you stop asking tough questions, then things just blow up."

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