I realize this blog post isn’t likely to make me any new friends, but I feel quite strongly about this topic, so here it is anyway. Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died yesterday of complications from lung cancer, and the question of his legacy looms larger than ever. There are those who feel that Coach Paterno is as responsible for the abuse of young boys as the alleged abuser himself, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. I am not among them. While I wish that the child sexual abuse allegations had been tackled head on immediately, and that any number of people had shouted their allegations from the rooftops, let me be clear. There is one person to blame for the atrocious alleged abuses of boys, and that person is Jerry Sandusky.
That Sandusky’s abuses were allowed to continue for so long was due to an entire series of systemic failures to follow up, to grasp the sickening reality of the situation, and to take decisive action. In 1998, a victim’s mother reports her son’s account of inappropriate behavior on the part of Sandusky to Penn State police, an investigation is undertaken, yet no charges were filed by the district attorney. In 2000, a temporary janitor at Penn State witnesses Sandusky in the athletic center showering with, and allegedly performing oral sex on, a young boy. The janitor informs the permanent janitorial staff but no other reports were filed.
In March 2002, Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary witnesses Sandusky touching a young boy inappropriately in the football facility shower. After talking it over with his father, McQueary tells Joe Paterno the next day about what he saw. Paterno reported the incident to Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, and to the vice-president of finance – who also oversaw the campus police – Gary Schultz. Both men met with McQueary regarding his observations, yet neither man ever reported the incident to the authorities. The only actions they apparently took were to confiscate Sandusky’s locker room keys and report the incident to Sandusky’s charity, The Second Mile.
Coach Paterno took the actions at the time that a reasonable person would have taken. Sandusky had not been on Paterno’s coaching staff for 3 years, and no longer had daily interaction with Paterno; it makes sense for Paterno to conclude that not he, but higher university officials, should confront the issue. There were no further incidents involving Sandusky on the Penn State campus; it made sense for Paterno to assume that the issue had been confronted and resolved. Should he have followed up? Knowing what we know now, of course he should have, and Paterno has said as much himself. But none of us are granted the benefit of a crystal ball when we make life-affecting decisions. We'd all make fewer mistakes if we did, eh?
Why do I even care about defending JoePa? I’ll tell you why. I grew up in an era when college football coaches did more than just prep young men for the pro game, and then jump to the NFL themselves. I attended the University of Michigan while Bo Schembechler coached football. Bo was not perfect; he had a nasty temper at times, and was, by many accounts, quite sexist. But he cared deeply about his players as young men with potential both on and off the field, not just as position players who won games. He cared deeply about the University of Michigan, and not just for the paycheck it provided. Joe Paterno was cut from the same cloth. The words of his former players, his fellow coaches, and the Penn State family do not lie. He and his wife have donated over $4 million to the university – for a library and academic scholarships, not towards football, I should note. His ambition was never to win Super Bowls and make more money in the NFL than he could ever dream of as a college coach, but to have a hand in helping young men reach their potential, and helping Penn State become a world-class university. This is not erased by one day of poor judgment. It cannot be. Those who loved him will not allow it.
I firmly believe that Joe Paterno died on Sunday morning of a broken heart. Not because his reputation was tarnished, but because a decision he made in 2002 caused him to let down the players he lived for, the university that he loved, and several young boys whose lives may never be made right.