The Shame at Penn State

Joe Paterno has always seemed to be an old man. I mention this because it has been difficult to picture him as a young man, as a man with vulnerabilities for a long time. It seems as though he has stood on the sideline, or sat in the press box since time began. What made Joe Paterno as beloved as he became was not his football coaching, his recruiting or his strategic acumen. It was that he was Penn State, coaching the team since it became relevant over 40 years ago. Not only was he Penn State, through the years Penn State became something more than Penn State. It became a metaphor for stability in an unstable world. When almost all major programs were exposed as liars and cheats, there was one last honest man. That may sound like an exaggeration, and I know many people did not see Paterno in this way, but what I do know is that there certainly were some who did, and those were his people, his players, his boosters, his fans, and his kids. That was whom Joe Paterno, without explicitly stating it, was coaching for.

Jerry Sandusky, however irrelevant and immoral seeming it may now be, was very good at his job as Defensive Coordinator by all accounts. He coached phenomenal defenses, and phenomenal linebackers in particular, winning two National Championships along the way. However, by 1998 it was clear something was amiss with Sandusky, who was at the time in line to replace Paterno. Sandusky, a man who had adopted six children, a man who ran a foster home, was being investigated for inappropriate behaviour with young boys in the Penn State showers. No charges were filed, and the DA went on to disappear without a trace seven years later. It is not know whether Paterno knew, but he informed Sandusky around the same time that he would no longer be the man replacing him. Within twelve months Sandusky retired. It seems as though Penn State and Paterno recognized all was not right with Jerry Sandusky.

The years go on and in 2002 Sandusky is no longer officially employed, yet is still granted unlimited access to Penn State facilities. It is in the same showers that a graduate assistant saw Sandusky raping a 10 year-old boy and informed Paterno. Justice cannot be done to that sort of tragedy; one sentence almost feels like a trivialization. The image that comes to mind is a sickening one, one I am sure we all hope will never happen, real or imagined, ever again. Joe Paterno was informed of this and he informed the Athletic Director, who did nothing. Joe Paterno found out about the rape of a 10 year-old boy, and although he legally fulfilled his obligation to inform a superior, he did not make sure something was done about it. I would be willing to bet that if Joe Paterno had called the police, Sandusky would have been charged much earlier than he was. Jerry Sandusky continued to molest young boys because people like Joe Paterno knew about it and did not ensure the atrocities stopped.

We want our great football coaches to be great people; that is why Joe Paterno was so admired. His “Grand Experiment,” his commitment to both academics and athletics was held up as evidence of something greater than a mere football coach. What we all failed to notice was that the qualities of a great football coach are usually not the qualities of a great man. A football coach’s job is to control the outcome as much as possible, to grant his team the best chance at victory. A person’s job, sometimes, is to admit that the outcome cannot be controlled, to admit that Jerry Sandusky, his friend and colleague was a monster, to in essence admit defeat. Unsurprisingly, Joe Paterno, one of the greatest coaches of his generation, failed to do this. He did the minimum of what he had to do while at the same time ensuring that he had the best chance to emerge unscathed, to ensure that he had the best chance to win. Had Sandusky been charged in 2002, the investigation of 1998 would have come to light and Joe Paterno would be in a very similar predicament to the one he is currently in. Joe Paterno put victory ahead of decency, and as a result everybody lost.

We want to believe that football, and sports, are a force for good, that they have lessons to teach us. Sometimes, football is a force for bad. Sometimes, it allows a depraved man to get away with despicable crimes in large part because he was good at telling football players how to line up on the field. It sounds absurd how much power one football coach, even an assistant, can have. It sounds much scarier in the case of Jerry Sandusky, and how he used that power for evil.

We want to believe that friendship and teamwork are good as well. Sometimes, friendship and teamwork allow evil deeds to go unpunished. Joe Paterno did not exercise proper moral behaviour, and he allowed molestation to go on because he knew Jerry Sandusky so well, because they were on the same team. Whether Paterno consciously thought in this manner is almost irrelevant, because one way or another he allowed his teammate to escape penalty. I would like to think I would have called the police if I was Paterno, but real life is not always as easy. It is much easier to think to yourself there must be a misunderstanding, to not report your longtime coworker and teammate.

The rebuttal to all this is that the fault lies with the administration, not with Paterno. After all, he did what he was legally obliged to do. I don’t know the administrators involved, but I am pretty sure they don’t have millions of followers, millions of fans, and millions of admirers. Joe Paterno has the most power of anyone on the Penn State campus, just ask the President who attempted to fire him and was rebuffed. Paterno had the opportunity to do right by everyone, to protect innocent kids, and he didn’t do it. That is why he cannot be allowed to coach college football, and cannot be allowed to coach kids any longer.

There are no great lessons or morals to take from this tragedy. Sometimes the guy next door is a monster. Sometimes great men make cowardly mistakes. Sometimes sports aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sometimes friendship and teamwork aren’t for the greater good. Sometimes a legend has to fall for all to realize we can do better.

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