Last week the NCAA saddled Penn State with penalties that may mean the university’s end as a leading football competitor. Paterno’s name came up in the proceedings as someone who contributed to the outrage. Despite his recent death of lung cancer, his humiliation continues. His name has already been expunged from as many things on campus as was humanly possible until now. Two weeks ago, as the mainstream press cheered, his statue on campus was pulled down and carted off to God knows where.
After an illustrious career spanning more than sixty years, Paterno’s resignation as head football coach at Penn State on November 9, 2011, signaled the beginning of an enduring crisis. This befell someone who brought to his university more football victories than any other Division I coach. Joe’s smiling Italian face until recently graced a multitude of billboards advertising all kinds of products around State College, PA. He was known to be an exemplary husband and father, a pious Catholic, and a role model to his players. He was also a nationally honored sports figure who ran onto the field with his players when other octogenarians were struggling to get out of bed with nursing assistance.
The crimes that the press has laid at Paterno’s doorstep are now well-known. Jerry Sandusky, his close friend of many decades and the football team’s defensive coordinator from 1977 until 1999, was revealed to be a molester of young boys. Some of those who stepped forth to accuse Sandusky had been his former victims, whom he had fondled while showering with them in the Penn State football building. Paterno knew about Sandusky’s misdeeds since the 1990s but had done nothing very effective to stop them. Although Sandusky had left the coaching staff in 1999, he was given a key to the football building, allowing him to make sexual advances to showering male adolescents.
Paterno did no more than what was legally required of him. When football assistant Michael McQueary informed him in 2002 that he had seen Sandusky “sexually assaulting” young males in the showers, Paterno went with the revelation to the school athletic director. Sandusky was then forced to give up his key to the football building, but no other disciplinary action was taken.
Sure, Paterno could have done more to address the problem, like going to the police to report his best friend and close coworker, someone who was long involved with him in the same charity organization that was ironically founded for “at-risk kids.” Paterno allowed his friendship to blur his judgment. At the very least he and the university president Graham Spanier (who until his resignation in November was receiving over a million dollars annually) could have made sure that Sandusky never came back to the campus after he resigned. Paterno’s decision to allow him to return for several years as a “voluntary coach” only made matters worse.
But beyond these exercises of bad judgment committed on behalf of his longtime friend, I see nothing Paterno did to justify the hysterical, hateful reaction that has now been unleashed against him. I’m not a Penn State fan. (I root for Notre Dame in college football.) I have no ties to the university except when I drive over part of the Allegheny Mountains to borrow books from what is still being called Paterno Library, named for him because of his longtime interest in English literature and because he helped raise over $18 million to make the library possible. But I have taken to wearing a Penn State T-shirt, and yesterday I joined the townies at my neighborhood convenience store in their rage against the NCAA for stripping Paterno and his players of their wins and achievements since 1998.
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