Why Joe Paterno HAD to Go

Before starting this, I first want to express the most remorse humanly possible for the innocent victims who were sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky. Our nation was founded upon protecting natural rights and what could very well end up being over 100 children had those rights grossly and preventably violated. I cannot even fathom the physical and emotional damage that was inflicted upon these defenseless victims, both at the time of their sexual abuses and from the trauma that endured thereafter. Read Rick Reilly’s excellent piece on what people who are sexually abused go through afterwards. That Jerry Sandusky was able to continue this reprehensible behavior after being investigated in 1998 and witnessed in 2000 and 2002 should haunt the consciousness and dreams of anyone who had the power to stop it and chose not to.

I avoided writing about this all week because I didn’t think that there was anything particularly unique or insightful that I could add to everything that I was reading. To me, this seemed extremely black and white and I did not understand how Joe Paterno or Graham Spanier kept their jobs past Monday, let alone that there should be a debate about whether they should be able to continue to. In 2002, Joe Paterno, Gary Schultz, Tim Curley, and Graham Spanier consciously neglected to report sexual abuse of a child knowing that the alleged suspect had been previously investigated for similar behavior in 1998. It is impossible to read the Grand Jury report and consider contextual information and not conclude that this was calculatedly done out of self-preservation. This selfish cover-up enabled Jerry Sandusky to continue to freely and habitually prey on victims for an additional nine years.

What follows is going to be extremely graphic but is necessary to show that the only rational conclusion from the grand jury report is that no matter how much good for how long Joe Paterno did for Penn State University, the only rational decision given what we know and can logically infer from it is that Joe Paterno HAD to be fired for his inactions. My thoughts and opinions are not entirely original. I have been educated and influenced by everything I have read on various web sites as well as Twitter, especially Dan Wetzel, SportsbyBrooks, Bomani Jones, Pete Thamel, Mark Madden, The Big Lead, Ty Duffy, Jason Whitlock, and Pat Forde.

Grand Jury Report: Page 19-20; 1998

“While in the shower, Sandusky approached the [11-year old] boy, grabbed him around the waist and said, ‘I’m going to squeeze your guts out.’ Sandusky lathered up the boy, soaping his back because, he said, the boy would not be able to reach it. Sandusky bear-hugged the boy from behind, holding the boy’s back against his chest. Then he picked him up and put him under the showerhead to rinse the soap out of his hair.”

“When Victim 6 was dropped off at home, his hair was wet and his mother immediately questioned him about this and was upset to learn the boy had showered with Sandusky. She reported the incident to University Police who investigated. After a lengthy investigation by University Police Detective Ronald Shreffler, the investigation was closed after then-Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar decided there would be no criminal charges.”

“The mother of Victim 6 confronted Sandusky…Sandusky said he had showered with other boys…and said, “I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead.’

***

Sandusky retired the next season, at the age of 55. This past April (!!!!!!!!!), when news of the current Sandusky investigation first broke, Beaver County Times columnist Mark Madden wrote:

Initially accused in 1998. Retires in 1999. Never coaches college football again. Sandusky was very successful at what he did. The architect of Linebacker U. Helped win national championships in 1982 and 1986. Recognized as college football’s top assistant in 1986 and 1999.

But there’s no shortage of stories and rumors about Penn State football sweeping problems under the rug, is there?

Why did college football let an accomplished coach like Sandusky walk away at 55? Why did he disappear into relative anonymity?

More on this in a minute.

Pages 6-12 of the Grand Jury report detail the testimonies of then-graduate assistant and current Penn State wide receivers coach Michael McQueary, Athletic Director Tim Curley, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, President Graham Spanier, and Joe Paterno. To understand the full context it would be in your best interest to read that whole section but the following passage from Page 9 is, in my opinion, the most relevant:

“Schultz testified that he and Curley agreed that Sandusky was to be told not to bring any Second Mile children into the football building and he believed that he and Curley asked the ‘child protection agency’ to look into the matter. Schultz testified that he knew about an investigation of Sandusky that occurred in 1998, that the ‘child protection agency’ had done, and he testified that he believed this same agency was investigating the 2002 report by the graduate assistant.”

There are several important implications from the preceding paragraph and passage about Sandusky’s retirement in 1999:

1. Joe Paterno HAD to have known about Jerry Sandusky’s 1998 investigation.

There is just absolutely no chance that Gary Schultz, VP for Finance and Business, was aware of an investigation involving the football team’s defensive coordinator but Joe Paterno was not. Zero. As the most important figure on Penn State’s campus, it is impossible to believe he didn’t know about this investigation, involving his long-time assistant, having been carried out by campus police.

Many have defended Paterno, saying that they would not want to believe such egregious accusations about a trusted former assistant, player, and friend that they had known and mentored for over 30 years. It is understandable that the first alleged offense–considering that Sandusky was, for whatever reason, not prosecuted (it would not be overly paranoid to suggest that this might have been intentionally covered up the first time but with the prosecutor’s mysterious disappearance in 2005 there is just no way to know for sure why the investigation stopped)–did not cause Paterno and Penn State to fully sever ties with his legendary assistant (Sandusky remained a professor emeritus which “allowed him access to all recreational facilities” amongst other privileges).

That being said, at the time of the 2002 allegations by McQueary, this was now a demonstrated pattern of unspeakably horrific behavior. As noted by Madden above, shortly after the first time he was accused, Sandusky “left” his position as a highly effective assistant at the age of 55. Whether he was pushed out or actually did retire on his own volition, to not vigorously pursue justice when confronted with such terrifying firsthand evidence for a second time in four years is morally reprehensible and completely unjustifiable.

2. Penn State administrators were more concerned with self-preservation than justice for past victims and prevention of future ones.

Telling Sandusky “not to bring any Second Mile children into the football building” sends a clear signal that Curley and Schultz did not care about sexual abuse victims as long as Penn State would not be implicated in them and be held liable.

Considering this callousness and utter lack of responsibility for humanity, it is not a stretch to believe that Curley, Schultz, Spanier, and Paterno chose not to go to the authorities with this matter because they did not want to incur intense scrutiny from the media and general public as to a) why Sandusky wasn’t prosecuted the first time he was investigated despite a mountain of evidence which included a tacit admission, and b) why he was still allowed unfettered access to campus facilities with young boys from his charity when he had been investigated for sexually deviant behavior in the past.

Media coverage wouldn’t have been AS bad as it has been this week if in 2002 Sandusky was turned in to authorities because there would not have been such an egregious cover-up and the internet had not yet evolved into what it is today. However, it would not have been pretty for those in power at Penn State. Couple that with the fact that the Nittany Lions were not winning on the field (they had no bowl appearances from 2000-2002) and Paterno would have had an extremely difficult time keeping his job in a scandal where his long-time defensive coordinator–who had been previously accused–raped an underage boy in the football team’s locker room. Jobs would have been lost and Penn State’s pristine reputation would have been immensely and perhaps irreparably tarnished. Only now, it’s worse.

It is simply impossible to read the grand jury report, combine it with contextual circumstances, and rationally conclude that this was an honest mistake and not a calculated cover-up. Because Jerry Sandusky was allowed to remain a free man for nine more years, more boys were sexually abused.

***

Having felt that this is so cut and dry (apparently not everyone else has read ~100,000 words about Penn State this week and spent a majority of their consciousness thinking about it), it has been absolutely surreal to take in the coverage of these events this week. There was Graham Spanier’s saying that his support of Curley and Schultz, who are charged with perjury from their grand jury testimony in addition to their admitted negligence, was unconditional. There was the idea that in notifying athletic director Tim Curley–a former player of Paterno’s who he handpicked for the position–of what McQueary saw fulfilled any obligation other than a legal technicality to inform a “higher-up”. There were Paterno’s bizarre statement about finishing the season and brief appearances where he neglected to demonstrate awareness of the gravity of the situation or sincere remorse and accountability for his role in it.

Perhaps the most bizarre has been the unconditional support for Paterno that has erupted amongst his ardent fans. Students are rioting in the streets in protest; ESPN keeps running the same clip of a loud–but wrong–Paterno apologist which we are led to believe is a representative sample of the campus. The local media did everything but bring pitchforks to the press conference where Paterno was fired by the Board of Trustees earlier this evening.

My friends who went to Penn State universally do not believe that Paterno should have been fired. I have known all three of them since I was 12 (more than half of my life) and they are rational, thoughtful people. To them, Paterno represented the ultimate source of honor, integrity, and success and was far and away the foremost symbol of pride in the institution of which they were educated at and whose football team they root for on Saturdays (the magnitude of the latter cannot be overstated). He was the sole reason that one of them went to Penn State and had dreamed of doing so since he could remember. Paterno was such a godlike–but also deeply personal–role model for them that this scandal feels as if it is happening to their third grandfather. It is simply unfathomable to them that Paterno acted in conscious self-preservation and did not make an honest mistake. Even if he DID make an honest mistake–which I clearly find very difficult to believe–people lose their jobs for much less serious errors in judgment.

In a must-read account of how this is affecting him personally, Grantland’s Michael Weinreb, who grew up in State College and attended Penn State, wrote:

I can’t add a lot to what’s been written about the facts of the burgeoning scandal at Penn State, except to tell you how strange it feels to type the phrase “burgeoning scandal at Penn State.” I know that I’m in denial. I know that I’m working through multiple layers of anger and disgust and neurosis and angst. I know that I’m too emotionally attached to the situation to offer any kind of objective take, though I don’t think I realized how emotionally attached I was until this occurred. I never understood how much of an effect both football and a sense of place had on my persona. I apologize if what follows seems disjointed, because I am still coming to terms with the fact that this is real. “What can I say?” my mom wrote me from State College on Monday afternoon. “We’re sort of going around in a daze.”

I honestly cannot fathom how a similar situation would affect me if it occurred with one of my sports heroes–Aaron Rodgers, Ted Thompson, and Mike McCarthy come to mind. Even then, there is no single figure in sports who is comparable to Joe Paterno and the positive effect he had for so long on his institution and community. Coach K is the only person who comes close but even then he is a divisive figure in his own community where at least half of the residents root for North Carolina and loathe Duke. Moreover, he sustained Duke’s previously achieved success whereas Paterno built the Penn State program with his bare hands. For 50 years, as almost every other major college football program reeked of scandal and foulplay, Penn State won national championships and was almost entirely blemish-free. He has the most wins of any NCAA football coach all-time and has given back to the community generously and conspicuously.

As Weinreb alludes to, we are more emotionally entangled with our sports teams and figures than we can possibly quantify or realize. An irrationally high proportion of our self esteem is inextricably linked to their successes and failures. No singular person had engendered as great a sense of pride for as long a time as JoePa did at Penn State. If anyone had earned the right to go out on his own terms, surely it was he. And he was. He proved it when he refused to step down in 2004 and continued coaching through until he was 84. But not in the wake of this. Short of murder, there is nothing worse that he could have covered up and enabled to perpetuate. There aren’t very many but some things are more important than football.

Since he steadfastly refused to step down with as much dignity as he could have preserved in this scandal’s wake, he left the Penn State Board of Trustees no choice but to fire him. He had to go. Before Saturday when #12 Penn State hosts #19 Nebraska in a game with tremendous BCS implications which would have re-defined the words media circus if he had sat there looking confused and blissfully ignorant in the press box as the cameras focused on him incessantly and attention was detracted from the players who have earned the right to have the national spotlight in this game. It is extremely sad that Joe Paterno’s legacy will always carry the weight of this scandal when as recently as a week ago it would have been universally remembered as everything that is right about sports and humanity. Paterno is not a victim, though. The children who were sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky are victims and who knows how many more of them are out there now because of Paterno’s and the Penn State administration’s selfish and unjustifiable inaction.

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2 Responses to Why Joe Paterno HAD to Go

  1. Dale says:

    To what extent can we ever really know the reality of a public figure, and how can we know what we would do in their situation? Not in defense of Paterno, but it’s hard to judge the uniqueness of this behavior

  2. Pingback: Paterno’s Complicated Legacy « Ryan Glasspiegel's Thoughts

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