Sandusky is pinnacle of generation shaped by scandal

I never understood what people meant when they said “it’s a different world.” Different from what? When I was growing up, all that meant was my mom never let us buy anything from the ice cream man.

Slowly but surely, I started to get it. I was 10 years old in August 2002, when Major League Baseball was hours away from canceling the remainder of the season. A strike? I thought that was when you threw a pitch over the plate. I didn’t know you could go on one.

The players and owners reached a last-minute agreement to save the season — and my elementary school faith in the world.

I was a little bit wiser by September 2004, when the NHL announced the cancellation of the entire season because of the lockout. I still didn’t know anything about labor unions or collective bargaining, but my middle school brain was able to understand that there was some type of problem that both sides needed to work on.

I remember December 2007 like it was yesterday. I darted out of ninth-period math class and missed my shot at asking a pretty girl to the winter dance because I was in a hurry to get home and read the Mitchell Report — 409 pages of never-before-seen information about illegal use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, the result of a commission led by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

I obviously didn’t read the entire thing that afternoon, but I remember it being the first time I seriously thought ESPN was lying to me. I couldn’t believe how many “good guys” were connected with the stuff. In total, seven former MVPs and 31 former All-Stars (covering all nine positions) were named in the report.

I sat at my computer and kept hitting the refresh button. I wanted the page to change, but every time it gave me the same grave report. Roger Clemens’ MLB-record seven Cy Young Awards? Reported to be helped by steroids. Eric Gagne’s consecutive saves record? Tainted. Barry Bonds’ and Rafael Palmeiro’s record-breaking home run totals? Those were in question even before the report, but this really did them in.

Living through the Steroid Era changed the way sports fans view the world. We question every accomplishment and second-guess every athlete. If someone has a breakout season, my first thought is “What’s he on?” The Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista had never hit more than 16 home runs in a season over the first six years of his career, then exploded for 97 over the last two seasons. I want him to be a cool story about a hard-working guy, but “naive” isn’t even beginning to describe someone who isn’t at least considering PEDs.

College athletics were the last haven in all of sports — and then those crumbled too. USC and Ohio State headlined an extensive group of programs with major violations that went all the way to the top of the institutions. Not trusting professionals was one thing — it’s all money, money, money with them — but college kids weren’t supposed to be that way.

We’re drawn to good stories in sports and we flock to athletes who manage to retain their innocence. People have mixed feelings about Duke but everyone respects Coach K. and what he’s done for that program. Tebow Mania swept the nation as he ran through SEC defenses while staying humble and devoted.

Joe Paterno’s Penn State football program was the last of a dying breed. It had character. It had respect. The Nittany Lions’ no-nonsense uniforms were a reflection of the discipline that was the backbone of the program.

And now it’s dead.

A new story comes out about Jerry Sandusky every day, about the children he abused and the adults who didn’t do enough to stop it. It’s not going to get any better. I won’t understand any recruits who still choose to attend PSU in the fall — recruits can be released from their NLI’s if the coach is fired — and I won’t understand any current players who stay with the program instead of transferring.

I tried to read the Grand Jury report on Sandusky, but I just couldn’t do it. It makes me sick. I got to page 2 before reading that he performed and received oral sex from an 11-year-old and had to stop.

Penn State finally hired a PR firm that specializes in dealing with dire situations, but it’s a little too late for that. That should have been the first thing the school did. I’ve already talked to students in public relations classes who are doing projects on how not to handle a situation: the Penn State story. The school just needs to start over; clean house and rebuild from the top.

Joe Paterno had coached Penn State since 1966, being a beacon of character and honesty through the murk of big-time college athletics. And in a matter of days, his school and his reputation crashed and burned amid a scandal that keeps getting worse. The last program we thought we could trust went up in smoke — and we won’t be trusting anyone again any time soon.