Thrill of Victory

The buck stops with Paterno – but not the blame

When could they say, till now, that talked of Rome,
That her wide walls encompassed but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man?

Cassius, in Julius Caesar

When CNN broke the news this weekend that the late Joe Paterno was evidently more involved in the cover-up of his former assistant Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of boys than previously revealed, it became clear that any possible reasonable defense of the former Penn State football coach is… well, about impossible.

In case you didn’t get the news, this excellent article by Yahoo!’s Dan Wetzel sums it up nicely. It alleges that Paterno, after conversing with Penn State vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley in 2001, seems to have convinced Curley to keep quiet about Sandusky’s child molestation. To that point, Curley had written in an e-mail that his plan had been to tell Sandusky to tell they were aware of his child molestation, and also, to inform both the chair of Sandusky’s Second Mile foundation as well as the Department of Welfare of the same.

But, of course, none of those things happened. To make matters worse, the same evidence that CNN uncovered reveals that PSU knew this wasn’t the only instance in which Sandusky abused a child.

A lot can, and has, been written about Paterno’s culpability in the matter. I don’t know what I could add that hasn’t already said, so I’m going to come at things from a different angle.

History is not going to be kind to Paterno, or for that matter, Curley, Schultz, or Penn State president Graham Spanier. Nor should it be. What they did was almost as bad as Sandusky’s behavior, and none has an excuse. We’ll view them as bad people, and perhaps that’s fair.

However, having worked in higher education for 17 years, I can tell you that nobody gets into that business in order to become rich and famous. I’ll bet none of the administrators did, and I’d bet even more that Paterno didn’t. Paterno, in particular, did a lot of good along the way, giving about $4 million back to the university that employed him. To take an entirely skeptical view, it can be argued that it was done to make himself look better, and perhaps that’s fair.

But maybe it’s not. Sometimes on ascension up the professional ladder, people get caught up in it. It may not happen immediately, but over time, people tend to believe that the higher they rise, the less their stuff stinks. They get away with a few things, they think they’re invincible; they get bolder in what they do. When the truth starts to come out, they worry not about right or wrong, but polishing that image they’ve become so invested in creating.

The mission ceases to become service to the cause, but self-preservation. In my former line of work, I saw it happen on at least two occasions. Lest we become too judgmental, there’s little reason the same couldn’t happen to you or I under similar circumstances.

And that’s why the problem is a lot bigger than Joe Paterno. Along the way, he lost his accountability to anyone for anything, and a lot of people stood by and let it happen.

Let’s start with the media. It has no greater purpose in American society than to keep people accountable. But it was said that Paterno controlled the Penn State campus, which meant he got his way with the media as well. Of course, a lot of the media around the university seemed preoccupied with protecting Paterno more so than finding out the truth anyway; take a look at the last half of this press conference video and read this article from the local press, and you’ll see what I mean.

Then there was the reaction of students and fans when Paterno was fired. While at least a dozen boys and their families were suffering the pain of the irreparable damage that Sandusky had caused, the outrage for Sandusky’s crime and PSU’s inaction paled in comparison to the outcry of injustice over Paterno’s firing. In spite of the truth that we now know, a statue to Paterno still stands on the Penn State campus, and a mural in downtown State College that includes Paterno’s likeness had a halo added to it this January.

Even law enforcement seemed in on the fix, knowing of Sandusky’s behavior as early as 1998, but doing nothing except asking Sandusky not to shower with boys thereafter. Others have alleged that the police discouraged victims from speaking to the media as well.

It adds up to a perfect storm in which Sandusky was knowingly allowed to prey on kids for at least 13 years, all because a community was more interested in protecting the false image of Joe Paterno, Patron Saint of College Football, than it was the fate of several boys – boys who will suffer for the rest of their lives because of those choices.

Perhaps it’s the more reason not to build statues to people, or at least not while they’re living. As the Penn State community has shown us, people don’t take kindly to taking down images, literally or figuratively.