The questions will not go away, no matter how hard the people around the Penn State football program try to wish them away. They're going to be there through this season, into the offseason and through the summer. They're going to be there through Tom Bradley's interim reign, through a coaching search and well into the tenure of the next guy. A stench this strong doesn't disappear just by opening a couple of windows.
So let's get directly to the point: Penn State should step up and decline any invitation to a bowl game. The Nittany Lions simply shouldn't go. They should play Wisconsin on Saturday and, if they win, play in the Big Ten championship game, and then call it a season. They should reverse their recent trend and do something that doesn't reek of self-interest.
We've watched new university president Rod Erickson furrow his brow and lower his voice on a nationally televised public-service announcement to tell us how things are going to be different now. It's not going to be business as usual at Penn State anymore. There will be systemic changes, big changes, changes the rest of the world will be able to see.
We've heard Ken Frazier, who is leading the trustees' inquiry, talk tough, and seen the school hire former FBI director Louis Freeh to conduct an investigation to measure the depth of the corruption surrounding Jerry Sandusky's alleged activities. (It's worth noting that Freeh's résumé looks better from a distance. He was a blundering FBI director -- Richard Jewell, the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11, Wen Ho Lee -- but an FBI director nonetheless.) We've heard that Penn State will make the difficult decisions that will restore a sense of dignity to the administration and the football program.
So prove it. Walk away from a bowl game. Walk away from something that would put money in your pocket. Make the tough choice. Do something that hurts a little.
The University of Miami became eligible for a bowl game with a win over South Florida on Saturday, and on Monday the school announced it would not accept a bowl invitation. This was less noble than calculated, since declining a bowl bid is a plea for mercy from the NCAA when it comes time for sanctions to come down. But still, the humility has to count for something.
The Penn State situation is much different. Obviously, it's much worse. The allegations against Sandusky brought down Joe Paterno and his legacy. They shook the core of the university and its cult-like following of the football coach. The region, with its incestuous government/judicial/social embroidery -- everything from judges to attorneys general seem to be connected to Sandusky's Second Mile charity and Penn State football, and nobody seems to understand conflicts of interest -- is being viewed unfairly as a creepy backwater.
(By the way, is it possible to be repelled by Sandusky while still being a little troubled by the utter lack of presumption of innocence? This became cringingly apparent when the new president used his PSA to discuss "the victims" without even bothering to qualify it. Look, Sandusky is a horrible sociopath -- nobody reading the grand-jury presentment could come away with any other conclusion -- but it's in society's best interest for the man to get a fair trial in order to get the kind of punishment he appears to deserve. To that end, shouldn't people like the school president -- and Paterno, for that matter -- at least drop an "allegedly" into the conversation every so often? Because if you're Sandusky's attorney -- and who would want that job -- aren't you asking whether there's any place in the country where your client could get a fair trial?)
If Penn State goes to a bowl game, if it glad-hands the guys in the garish blazers and takes the gift bags and the check and the national attention, it'll be nothing short of an act of hypocrisy. If that coaching staff -- filled with men who worked alongside Sandusky and sat near him as he brought preteen boys on road trips and into hotel rooms and to meals with the coaching staff, for God's sake -- runs out of the tunnel at a bowl game, it will be extremely hard for the rest of the world to see that as anything but unmitigated gall.
Judging by the grand-jury report, the university has failed completely at every step over the past 13 years. There's a coherent argument to be made for banning football altogether at Penn State, at least temporarily, and this comes from someone who has roots in the area and once had a cardboard Joe Paterno in his house.
And I know what you're going to say before you say it. You're going to trot out the same counterargument that's been tossed around since the beginning of the Penn State debacle. It came up when the idea of canceling the Nebraska game was raised, and even back when the quaint prospect of canceling the rest of the schedule was raised.
And that argument is this:
The kids had nothing to do with it. You shouldn't punish the kids for the failures of adults.
This isn't the Juice Box League, so can we stop turning college athletes into infants? Because that argument is situational, and used solely for convenience. When the issue is paying athletes, they're kids. When the issue is trading memorabilia for tattoos, they're adults who should know better. They can handle the repercussions. They can understand that men make mistakes -- sometimes huge mistakes -- that have ramifications on younger men. The people who cry about the plight of the poor kids are the ones who simply want Penn State to be in a bowl game because they're Penn State fans. It's a specious argument.
These "kids" have dealt with disappointment before. They've lost games they thought they should have won. They've played seasons that ended before they thought they should have ended, and they've cried because of it.
The letdown isn't missing a bowl game. The letdown came a few weeks ago, when they were forced to come to terms with the possibility that the people they trusted weren't worthy of that trust. After that, a bowl game is a minor disappointment. And really, the whole thing is easy. When the bowl committee calls, whether it's Rose or Capitol One or Little Caesars, just say one word: Pass.
ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Rick Harrison of "Pawn Stars" -- "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," also available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.