Placing Blame with Joe Paterno

Paterno, the man widely credited with making the Penn State football program a great institution, one of high ethical standard and commitment to excellence, should now be held accountable for its misdeeds and actions, including abetting a serial pedophile


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; just 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.

Brian Kesselman July 18, 2012 at 01:37 PM
We need to be able to protect our children. And to understand how pedophiles hide their crimes, how schools can fairly but competently deal with allegations, how to make it easier to be a whistleblower and how to better support victims. Laying so much blame at the feet of one person seems to do disservice to some of these goals, ignoring the breadth of the problem and the work that needs to be done towards solutions.
Lorna July 18, 2012 at 03:09 PM
Unfortunately, this whole episode of turning a blind eye for the sake of victories is yet one more facet of the ugly side of college football as a business. It angers and saddens me to think of all the potential scientists, researchers, expert care-givers, artists and creative types who are denied scholarships while lavish funds are spent on those who can hustle on the gridiron. Not to mention the "socal promotion" of college degrees being given to some who can barely put a sentence together. And I don't think that this culture of celebrating seriously vicious hits on opponents does any good either. Case in point: does one have to be a convicted felon to join or remain with the Baltimore Ravens team? It's appalling to think that Paterno or Sandusky could be earning a pension while financial aid is denied to young people who could contribute to society in a more positive way.
Brian Kesselman July 18, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Lorna, you are right. In general it is criminal that successfull collegiate sports programs can come at the cost of successful students, alternate usage of funds, and social promotion. Whether it's football, basketball or any team thought to represents a school, the risk is always there. I will point out that requiring strong academics from its student athletes is one of the few areas where Penn State is getting positive press, as evidenced by the football program's historic graduation rates & advanced degrees . (Some past football players transferred to other schools to continue their eligibility when benched for academics.) If the PSU football program and Paterno's leadership can be held out as a model for anything today, it is probably only that his "grand experiment" was predicated on the idea of turning the players into "good men" defined as students who learn, graduate, really earn their degree, and understand that academics come first. Paterno and his wife are known for their commitment to academics, arranging tutoring, donating millions of dollars to build and maintain the libraries, endowing academic scholarships and alike. Please check out this article for more information. http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/07/paternos-revenge-penn-state-football-is-no-1-in-academic-bowl/ However, there are definitely other schools that exhibit the problems of social promotion, skewed admissions, test taking, grade fixing and alike.
Jlo July 20, 2012 at 05:59 AM
Penn state needs to divorce itself from paterno if it wants to maintain credibility. Stop using his likeness and tear down that awful statue. He might have been a great coach but he was a coward like everyone else in that program.
Karl Rove July 20, 2012 at 09:37 PM
It's easy to pretend to step into another person's shoes after the fact and imagine that you'd have handled the situation perfectly had you been there. Joe Paterno certainly made any number of huge mistakes in this situation, but that doesn't erase all of the good things he did for individuals and the community during his tenure; what it does is provide a fuller picture of an imperfect man. You can choose to remember him in whatever way you want, but don't believe that you're speaking for everyone -- and don't claim for a second that yours is the only correct or even moral way to remember him. I'll remember his entire history, the good and the bad, and I'll try to forgive his mistakes, as I like to think his Catholic god might have when he gave his final confession on his deathbed. The people who lionized him during his life -- including the media and, more importantly, the Penn State administrators who should have had their priorities straight to begin with -- bear as much or more responsibility for Jerry Sandusky's on-going crimes as a football coach does. That statement in no way absolves Paterno of his responsibility, but this avalanche of assigning blame on Paterno is akin to pinning the majority of the responsibility for the Guantanamo tortures on Rumsfeld rather than on the commander-in-chief. By the way, I look forward to the article in which you condemn both of them for their crimes against humanity.


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