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Joe Paterno’s New Identity

In Sports on November 10, 2011 at 10:34 am

By: Josh Koebert

For the first time in 46 years Joe Paterno isn’t the head coach of Penn State football. For the first time in 61 years, he isn’t a football coach. His departure from the coaching ranks was unceremonious, embarrassing, and came on someone else’s terms.

And he didn’t do anything.

Which is the problem.

For those unfamiliar, or simply seeking more information on the current child sex abuse scandal Penn State is embroiled in, this link will take you to the 23 page grand jury report that finally brought these atrocities to light. I caution clicking on that link, as the contents of the report are sickening, enough to make your skin crawl.

In that report the much talked about 2002 incident is described in detail. The short version: A Penn State graduate assistant, who has since been identified as current Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, walked into the Lasch Football Building on campus and caught former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky engaging in anal intercourse with a young boy, described by McQueary as being around 10 years old.

In the first of many examples of those involved making the wrong decision, McQueary left without intervening, and called his father, who told him to call Joe Paterno. He did, and the next day went to the head coach’s house to tell the legend what he saw. There is some debate as to exactly what McQueary described to Paterno, but there is a consensus that Paterno knew something of a sexual nature occurred, and a grown man was showering with a young boy in an otherwise empty locker room.

From there Paterno informed athletic director Tim Curley and Senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz, the man who oversaw the Penn State police department, of the allegations.

And that’s it.

Sandusky wasn’t charged, the police weren’t informed of the allegations. Sandusky was told to stop bringing children from his Second Mile program to Penn State football buildings, a punishment that many have pointed out was unenforcible, as they allowed him to retain access to those same buildings. As recently as last week Sandusky was spotted in a Penn State football facility.

Still, many people, people I respect, have questioned the coverage of this scandal. The common complaint is that most media coverage focuses on Joe Paterno, a man who, by his own admission, should have done more, but a man who did all he was legally required to. They question why the story is about Joe Paterno instead of Jerry Sandusky.

Joe Paterno is the story because we don’t really know what Paterno IS if everything is true. If the charges are true against Sandusky, (and early indicators are that they are, and they may be growing as more victims have come forward), then he is quickly, easily, and rightly defined as a monster. He is an evil man, a man who deserves life in prison for sexually abusing multiple children. That is how Jerry Sandusky will be remembered, and there is very little nuance to that.

But Paterno, Paterno is different. What does this scandal make him? Before he was the winningest coach in major college football history, with a record 409 wins and 24 bowl victories to go along with a pair of national championships. He was seen as the man who did things the right way, a man who’s football players graduated at rates far exceeding NCAA averages, while also excelling on the field. He was a leader of men, a symbol of all that is right in college athletics.

Now? Now the struggle begins to define Joe Paterno. He is still a giant figure in American sports, but he is no longer untarnished. To what extend is this scandal going to determine how we, as sports fans, as Americans, as people remember Paterno? That is why he is a story, that is why his inaction is front and center.

What spurred his inaction? How could Joe Paterno, a man who was built into a paragon of virtue, do just enough to wash his hands of the situation? How in the hell could he allow Sandusky continued access to Penn State facilities? How could Paterno, a father and grandfather, allow Sandusky to continue working with children through the Second Mile organization following the 2002 revelation?

Children were raped and abused. Paterno had limited knowledge of it, but knowledge nonetheless.

And he did nothing.

His sin of omission enabled Sandusky’s behavior to continue and we may very well see more victims step forward, victims who could have avoided the pain and anguish that will haunt them for the rest of their lives

Many defenses of Paterno has sprung up, some ill-conceived, few that are well thought out, and many that do not extend beyond the asinine refrain of “He’s a legend! And he did what he was supposed to!”

Joe Paterno did what is required of him by the letter of the law, but by the spirit of the law and the moral obligation he had as a leader of men and a decent human being, he failed spectacularly. For Paterno to continue associating with a “man” such as Jerry Sandusky with any kind of knowledge of the improprieties that have come to light is disappointing, and for that to continue for almost a decade with no attempt to uncover the truth is borderline negligent.

Beyond that, Paterno had more de facto power than his “superiors” thanks to his legendary status. In 2004 Curley and other officials requested Paterno step down as coach. He refused and continued coaching for seven years after that, and may have kept going if not for the Sandusky case. Who has the real power in that relationship?

Other writers have addressed these issues, and done a far better job than I ever could. First, Sports Illustrated‘s Andy Staples:

Setting aside what the graduate assistant actually reported to the grand jury — an act so heinous that the mere mention of it should cause any normal person to retch — exactly how extensive a report of sexual activity does Paterno need to do the right thing and make sure the report gets investigated thoroughly? No one gets a little bit fondled. Beyond that, a grown man and a young boy were naked together in a shower. That isn’t normal. That requires an inquiry. Yet Paterno did nothing except kick the accusation upstairs. In this case, “upstairs” is a relative term. Curley was nominally Paterno’s boss, but Paterno has long been the most powerful man on Penn State’s campus. If Paterno wanted the claim investigated, he could have made an investigation happen. He didn’t.

And Penn State alum Chris Korman, whose article for The Baltimore Sun is a tremendous examination of the culture at PSU and the decline of the Paterno that allowed this situation to reach the critical mass it has:

No one can possibly believe that Paterno, when informed by a panicked graduate assistant that something untoward had happened in the shower involving a man and a boy, could have synthesized that information into anything requiring that he merely advise his supervisor and then forget about it. This notion, on its face, is patently absurd. But when you add other elements – like the fact that the graduate assistant was Mike McQueary, who Paterno once trusted to play quarterback for him and later gave a full time job to – you have no choice but to realize that Paterno whisked the information aside to protect his program and his friend, in that order. Now he has to obscure the issue by trying to turn it into an issue of semantics, saying that he didn’t know the “very specific actions” that allegedly happened in the shower — as if he needed that level of detail to know whether it was right or wrong.

Theories will be thrown around for weeks as to the exact motivations Paterno, Curley, et al used to make the decisions they did, whether it be arrogance, a misguided sense of protection of the Penn State brand or Paterno’s legacy, misplaced faith in a friend and former co-worker, or something else. Those details may help to determine how we remember Paterno following this scandal, but until then we just have to sit and wonder.

It is unfortunate that this is how Paterno’s career ends, but the second in 2002 when he decided not to go to the police, the second he decided that Sandusky didn’t need dealing with, right then his position as head football coach became untenable, record be damned.

Now the search begins, the search for closure as Sandusky is hopefully put behind bars for good, as well as the search for Joe Paterno’s new identity, the identity that will define him for the rest of his life.

“The kids who are victims … I think we all ought to say a prayer for them.” -Joe Paterno, 11/8/11

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