Paterno, Penn State, and the Public

Posted on 2011 November 13


Don’t get me started. It’s all so stupid. It shows humans at their self-righteous worst.

“It” is the firing of Joe Paterno, longtime coach of the nationally ranked Penn State varsity football team. He had forwarded an allegation of child abuse to college administrators, but nine years later the entire affair went public, and Paterno was pilloried and shown the door, apparently for reporting the incident with insufficient vigor. Basically he failed to jump up and down, screaming and pointing at the suspect, who had been a friend of his. And so the only person to bring forth the allegations gets fired.

The unfairness of his treatment — the second-guessing (or, in view of the context, the “Monday-morning quarterbacking”), the presumption of guilt, and the lack of a hearing — is almost unique.

Paterno’s longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky, had retired, so he was no longer under the direct authority of his old coach. But Sandusky was still permitted to use Penn State facilities to conduct scrimmages on behalf of his youth sports charity. In 2002 Paterno heard allegations that Sandusky had engaged in sex with a young boy in the athletic showers. Despite the expectations of loyalty that a decades-long friendship demands, Paterno — famous for his strict moral code, which has sheltered Penn State football entirely from major NCAA sanctions — reported the allegations to university administrators.

At that point, it was the administration’s job, not Paterno’s, to look into the allegations and report them, as necessary, to police. Had Paterno done so on his own authority — deciding that he knew better and that the university couldn’t be trusted — even he, founder of the mighty Penn football dynasty, might have been fired for veering flagrantly outside of channels. Instead, and quite properly, he left it to the university to make the decisions.

The higher-ups, however, stonewalled, soft-pedaling any punishment. Perhaps they were operating as a “good old boy” network, protecting their own. Politely, they booted Sandusky from campus, though he was allowed to continue running his boy’s camp at a satellite school. It’s similar to what happened to Catholic priests who, accused of child molestation, were simply removed to other dioceses.

The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Paterno met his legal obligation to report the incident to his superior, but many, including the state’s police commissioner, felt the coach fell short of his ‘moral responsibility’ to alert authorities.” Except he did do what he was supposed to do! He reported the incident to management, who were empowered to take the next steps.

Bear in mind that Paterno also had a moral responsibility to his thirty-year working friendship with Sandusky. How would you like it if a close friend hears a report that you did something bad and immediately calls the cops on you? Paterno cut that Gordian Knot right down the middle, reporting Sandusky to higher-ups but thereafter letting the chips fall where they may. At best, he did exactly what the system demanded of him. At worst, Paterno’s relative leniency was a farewell gesture, a “running start” offered to a friend who had served him loyally for decades. It was as if Sheriff Paterno had told Sandusky, “Get out of town.” As it turned out, Paterno was overruled, and Sandusky merely had to move off Main Street.

This was in 2002, years before the priest scandals had been thoroughly aired in the media, years before our national attitudes focused and hardened against this type of abuse. Paterno has been judged by our current standards, not by the rules of the past, and in hindsight we’ve decided he should have acted as we might today. He’s being blamed for making a proper 2002 decision when we expect him to have made a 2011 one.

Then there’s the issue of presumption of innocence. When the dust settles and Sandusky’s lawyers have fulfilled their duty of casting doubt on the charges and/or the venues where the alleged attacks took place, Penn State trustees could find they jumped the gun. But by then it will be way too late for Paterno, who’s essentially been relieved of duty for failing, nine years ago, to act on his own as judge, jury, and executioner. The wrong people are being held responsible: it’s the court system’s job to prosecute and, perhaps, convict and sentence Sandusky. But Penn State trustees have already concluded he’s guilty — and, by association, that Paterno is, too.

There may well be more to this incident, behind the scenes, than we yet know. Perhaps Penn State trustees have chafed under the ancient Paterno and his endless tenure, and they took this chance to remove him. That theory is weakened, however, by the fact that the football team, with an 8-and-1 record at the time of Paterno’s firing, was ranked by all three polls at twelfth in the nation.

Maybe politics also figured in the sudden firing of the university’s president, Graham Spanier, who signed off on the original wrist-slap of Sandusky. We might have to wait for historians and biographers to sort it all out. But already it’s clear the trustees acted precipitately. Are they covering their rears, hoping the mass terminations will relieve them of liability from on-campus child abuse? They should think again. This isn’t like politics, where a senator can fire a scofflaw assistant and everybody forgets about it. In these matters, the courts have long memories.

This entire affair reeks of panic and image control. Maybe the facts will prove Sandusky is a menacing chicken hawk, but meanwhile he’s merely a suspect. Yet it’s Paterno who’s been railroaded without a hearing. The administrators who hushed up the scandal are in hot water, and perhaps they deserve it. But why blame Paterno, when the coach is the one person who brought the incident to their attention?

It all puts me in mind of the recent decline of Thomas Jefferson’s reputation, whom revisionists have castigated for owning slaves and failing to free them at his death. (He couldn’t; he didn’t own them; he was broke and in hock when he died.) We discount his Declaration of Independence; we omit his eleven attempts in the Virginia Assembly to enact legislation freeing the slaves; we forget that he warned of slavery’s danger to the Union. Instead, we condemn him for using slaves in an era when it was expected of him. We judge him by modern standards and censure him unfairly.

Likewise, people won’t remember Joe Paterno for being the all-time winningest coach in big-league NCAA football, nor that he had the longest tenure of any college coach in history; they won’t recall that he built Penn State from nothing to a national powerhouse; they won’t remember how successful he was at inspiring exemplary moral behavior from his teams. All they’ll think is that he had something to do with child molestation. “Yeah, he was that old coach who, what, buggered a kid? Or something.” Shrug. That’s how people often misremember things. That’s how negligent we can be with others’ reputations.

We tend to panic, not at reports of violence against children, but at stories of sexual predators. Both are bad, to be sure, but we only become impatient and angry around the topic of pedophilia, which affects our judgment in ways that often damage the innocent. Precisely because child abuse is so charged an issue, we should be extra-careful before tarring people’s honor with it. Instead, we tend to shoot first and ask questions later, then mutter, “Oops, sorry,” and walk away, leaving the wounded to care for themselves.

It’s all so stupid. It tarnishes my faith in humanity.

But don’t get me started.


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. . . A FINAL NOTE: My uncle, Gordon White — a longtime (now retired) sports reporter for the New York Times who wrote the authorized biography of Joe Paterno — has posted an interesting essay on this topic. He argues, with sadness, the other side of this issue despite his longtime friendship with the coach. It’s an interesting article that includes good background on the controversy, and you can read it here.

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POSTSCRIPT: An October, 2012 article in The New Yorker, “In Plain View: How Child Molesters Get Away With It”, explains how Paterno and the Penn State administrators were elaborately conned by Sandusky. According to the article, pedophiles typically establish themselves as super-nice super citizens, so as to get close to families and their kids. They then fish for the most promising children (those with little or no supervision, those who are most lonely, etc.), and slowly move in on them. If anything goes wrong, the predators’ charmingly innocent protestations win the day, or at least generate a lot of smoke, while the kids’ claims get dismissed as childish imaginings. Paterno — who focused monomaniacally on football and knew nothing about pedophilia — got whipsawed between Sandusky’s ruses and the witch hunt that ensued a decade later. Paterno paid with his life, while Sandusky keeps proclaiming his innocence.

Yes, Sandusky will die in prison. But the unfairness meted out to Paterno still rankles.

(Interesting side note: Sandusky’s autobiography, released in 2001, is titled … wait for it … TOUCHED.)


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UPDATE: Joe Paterno ‘didn’t know which way to go’ regarding Jerry Sandusky

UPDATE: Joe Paterno Dies 2 Months After Being Fired

UPDATE: Report includes Paterno in Sandusky cover-up

UPDATE: Paterno defends Penn State

UPDATE: Paterno family rejects Freeh Report

UPDATE: NCAA punishes Penn State, vacates Paterno wins from 1998

UPDATE: Paterno cried uncontrollably after firing

UPDATE: Sandusky’s sophisticated con (The New Yorker article mentioned in the Postscript, above)

UPDATE: Sandusky maintains his innocence, claims accusers all lied

UPDATE: Mrs. Paterno fights back

UPDATE: NCAA reinstates Paterno’s wins from 1998

UPDATE: Settlement implies Paterno knew of Sandusky behavior in 1971

UPDATE: He said that he said that he said: the witch hunt continues in 2016