I have not come to praise Joe Paterno, but to bury him.
Because sadly, by creating a culture at Penn State that revered the university’s football program above all else, the late head coach set the stage to allow a now-convicted child sexual predator to roam free for years to prey on innocent children.
Paterno—the man widely credited with making the Penn State football program a great institution, with instilling in his players a high ethical standard and commitment to excellence both on the playing field and in the classroom, and with building a legacy of the “Happy Valley” culture—should also be held accountable for , amounting to abetting a serial pedophile.
In June, Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach of Penn State’s Nittany Lions football team, was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexual abuse and assault of 10 boys. Since the guilty verdict, an investigation—headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, and paid for by the university itself—found that the college leadership, including Paterno, showed “total and consistent disregard…for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims,” according to a report released last week.
What’s more, those senior university officials “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”
In other words, football won out over children.
Over six months, investigators interviewed more than 400 witnesses and reviewed documents and emails that showed what amounts to a cover-up—university leadership had discussions on multiple occasions about allegations of Sandusky’s actions, and yet nothing was ever done. They hid facts, kept secrets and created an atmosphere where “doing the right thing” and reporting Sandusky couldn’t and wouldn’t happen. They protected a man they knew was hurting children, long after his formal relationship with the university ended; in fact, Sandusky continued to receive perks and payments after his retirement.
Among the report’s many indictments against the school and its leadership, it says that Sandusky was allowed access to Penn State facilities after he was no longer a coach for the team, bringing victims there on multiple occasions. In fact, the report confirms that Sandusky still had locker room keys even after his arrest last November.
According to the New York Times, “the investigation makes clear it was Mr. Paterno, long regarded as the single most powerful official at the university, who persuaded the university president and others not to report Mr. Sandusky to the authorities in 2001 after he had violently assaulted another boy in the football showers.”
During the press conference when the report was released, Freeh said what was of prime concern to Paterno and other Penn State officials was a “fear of bad publicity” and how that bad publicity would impact the program and Paterno’s reputation. Of course that bad P.R. was a direct threat against the prestige of a football program with “Joe Pa” Paterno at the helm—and against Penn State’s ability to raise boatloads of money that comes along with that prestige and domination.
Any early action against one of its own would have hurt the football program. And remember, it was the football program above all else at Penn State.
Football 1, Team Morals 0.
Sure, punitive action has since been taken against some of those Penn State leaders: before he died, Paterno was fired; the university president Graham Spanier was forced out; and two former school officials—vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley—have been charged with perjury and failure to report abuse. But I’m not sure that’s enough, given the extent of irreparable hurt and damage the scandal has caused.
Certainly, the victims hurt most egregiously were the boys raped and abused by Sandusky. More victims will undoubtedly come forward; on Monday, a CNN contributor with the Harrisburg Pilot reported that more men have contacted police to report being abused by Sandusky in the 1970s and 1980s. This follows the post-verdict announcement that Sandusky’s adopted son also said he had been abused.
There are other, lesser victims from the fallout—Penn State students, alumni, faculty and even those who defended Paterno after the scandal broke in a media storm. They were fed a false myth, something out of The Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” They don’t deserve the blame, they did no wrong.
The reputation of their university has been damaged, and there might even be further repercussions: the U.S. Department of Education may find that Penn State was in violation of the Clery Act, which requires schools to collect information about alleged crimes and report any that pose a threat to the community. This carries potential civil penalties and fines.
Is it enough? Is it fair? Since it was the football program that was placed above all else, perhaps that’s the place where a realignment of value needs to be made. Responsibility needs to be placed at the feet of the program itself. If it was a culture of Happy Valley Football First, then Happy Valley Football should be first to take the blame.
The university and the NCAA should show that the legacy of Penn State—not Joe Paterno, but of Penn State—will be to put children first. There needs to be consideration as to whether Penn State’s revered football program should be banned from participation in college competition. Some larger statement will show that it wasn’t Penn State, but those who steered the ship wrong in deference of an athletic program.
Jerry Sandusky will pay heavily for his crimes; perhaps there is really not enough punishment for the damage he caused, but when he is sentenced come September, he will surely, hopefully, get the maximum penalty allowed.
Sadly, it’s Joe Paterno who will never be able to rightfully acknowledge his role in the awful horror that came out of his actions that allowed Sandusky to continue doing what he did for so long. But history will now show that Paterno’s legacy isn’t the one he thought he was building over so many years, one of greatness and honor.
Instead, he will be remembered for bringing shame and pain to so many.