Paterno and Penn State: Say It Ain’t So, Joe

Well, something tells me these aren’t happy days in Happy Valley. Jerry Sandusky, the long time assistant coach, former Penn State defensive coordinator and at one point someone considered to be the heir apparent to JoePa, has been accused by prosecutors of sexually abusing young boys over a period of 15 years or so.

This story exploded on the Internet and via mainstream print and TV media over the weekend. And while I was chasing the treadmill belt at 5:30 a.m. this morning, the story dominated the early-morning TV news broadcasts. Here’s a good overview of the particulars from Deadspin, “A Guide To The Child Abuse Charges Against Jerry Sandusky, And To Penn State’s Alleged Willful Ignorance.

Sandusky says he is innocent. We’ll see.  But the allegations have already resulted in the athletic director taking a leave of absence and a senior administrator resigning. Both face criminal charges, accused of lying to a grand jury. Both through their lawyers maintain they are innocent.

And this situation has the potential to shred the legacy of Joe Paterno. This is the coach who for decades has stood for more than football at one of the biggest football powers in the country. But while other coaches and programs — remember Jim Tressel at Ohio State? — imploded, JoePa during seasons good and bad has remained a bedrock for character, integrity, honesty and ethical conduct. We’ll see.

I guess you could argue that this situation doesn’t have anything to do with the game of college football as played on the field during a dozen or so weeks during the year. As best I can tell, none of the alleged victims were connected to the football program. And Sandusky resigned as a coach a decade ago, although he has retained a close association to the athletic department.

Here’s from an AP story published in WaPo:

“This is a case about a sexual predator who used his position within the university and community to repeatedly prey on young boys,” state Attorney General Linda Kelly said Saturday.

Paterno, who last week became the coach with the most wins in Division I football history, wasn’t charged, and the grand jury report didn’t appear to implicate him in wrongdoing.

In a statement issued Sunday night, Paterno said he was shocked, saddened and as surprised as everyone else to hear of the charges.

“If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers,” Paterno said in a statement issued by his son, Scott.

Under Paterno’s four-decades-and-counting stewardship, the Nittany Lions became a bedrock in the college game, and fans packed the stadium in State College, a campus town routinely ranked among America’s best places to live and nicknamed Happy Valley. Paterno’s teams were revered both for winning games — including two national championships — and largely steering clear of trouble. Sandusky, whose defenses were usually anchored by tough-guy linebackers — hence the moniker “Linebacker U” — spent three decades at the school. The charges against him cover the period from 1994 to 2009.

But here’s the rub for Paterno. He may have done the legally correct thing, but did he do the ethically right thing? Many times there is a big difference. (For those of you who recall the days when I was teaching a class in media ethics at Kent State, consider the points in Rushworth Kidder’s “How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living.”)

Here’s from the NYT, “In Penn State’s Sex Abuse Case, a Focus on How Paterno Reacted?“:

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — On Saturday, March 2, 2002, according to Pennsylvania prosecutors, a Penn State University graduate student went to visit Joe Paterno, the university’s football coach. The student had a horrific story to tell: the night before, the graduate student had witnessed one of Paterno’s former coaches sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in the football facility’s showers.

Paterno, according to the prosecutors, did not call the police. Instead, the next day, he had the university’s athletic director visit him at his home, a modest ranch house just off campus in State College. According to prosecutors, Paterno told the athletic director of the report regarding the former coach, Jerry Sandusky.

The authorities then say nothing about what, if anything, Paterno did in the subsequent days or weeks. They do not say whether he followed up on the allegation or whether he ever confronted Sandusky, a man who had worked for him for 32 years and who, even after retiring, had wide access to the university’s athletic facilities and students.

What prosecutors do contend in detail is that Sandusky went on to abuse at least one and perhaps any number of other young boys after Paterno and other senior officials at Penn State were told of an assault in 2002.

Sandusky, 67, was arrested Saturday and charged with 40 counts of sexually abusing children over 15 years, including his time as an assistant at Penn State. He was specifically accused of having assaulted the young boy in 2002. All the accusers were boys Sandusky had come to know through a charity he founded, the Second Mile, for disadvantaged children from troubled families.

The university’s athletic director, Tim Curley, and another senior administration official have been charged with lying to a grand jury about what they had been told about Sandusky’s conduct, and they are expected to surrender to the authorities Monday morning. While their lawyers have maintained they will be exonerated, and Sandusky, through his lawyer, has maintained his innocence, both men stepped down from their positions at the university late Sunday.

Earlier Sunday, Paterno issued a statement insisting that the graduate assistant had not told him of the extent of the sexual assault that he said he witnessed, only that he had seen something inappropriate involving Sandusky and the child.

“As Coach Sandusky was retired from our coaching staff at the time, I referred the matter to university administrators,” Paterno said in the statement.

“I understand that people are upset and angry, but let’s be fair and let the legal process unfold,” Paterno said.

Paterno’s son Scott said in an interview Sunday that Paterno never spoke to Sandusky about the allegation, and that he never seriously pursued the question of whether any action had been taken by the university or any other authorities against Sandusky.

“From my imperfect recollection, once he referred it off, I do not believe he had a second conversation about it,” Scott Paterno said of his father and how he handled any follow-up on the allegation. He added: “The appropriate people were contacted by Joe. That was the chain of command. It was a retired employee and it falls under the university’s auspices, not the football auspices.”

It appears prosecutors believe that Paterno, whatever his personal sense of obligation to inquire or act further, met his legal requirement in reporting the graduate student’s allegation to his direct superior, Curley.

Sigh.

Let’s consider this sentence from the NYT story again:

“From my imperfect recollection, once he referred it off, I do not believe he had a second conversation about it,” Scott Paterno said of his father and how he handled any follow-up on the allegation.

I’m sure that many more details of this story will emerge in coming days and weeks. So it really is unfair to rush to judgement about guilt or innocence — or about Paterno’s conduct.

But if Scott Paterno’s view of the world is accurate, then sorry folks, JoePa has to go.

Legally correct. Yes.

Ethically right. No.

It’s a matter of character, honesty and integrity.

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2 responses to “Paterno and Penn State: Say It Ain’t So, Joe

  1. Rob,
    A very sad day indeed…As a alumni and die-hard supporter of PSU this is just…I don’t even know what to say.
    If JoPa was told what was going on and he did not report it, not to the University but to the Police, then that is a crime in and of itself.
    I know that i have commented on the problems at OSU and have always felt that PSU was above that which corrupted the rest of college athletics, but if Joe knew, and it appears he did, and did not do the right thing…which I just find so hard to believe because it was never about him, about the program, blah blah blah, then I will be the first one to call for his resignation, as well as the resignation of the president. If this is how he goes out, after all the good he has done, after putting his players and his school first and foremost, as one of the greatest advocates of the “student” in Student athlete, then so be it. If he did nothing wrong, then let him go in peace and let his legecy speak for itself.

    • I agree. I believe that most people — whether they like Penn State football or not — hope that Paterno can exit gracefully with his legacy pointing to his many accomplishments on behalf of the university, students, alumni and players. I don’t like to jump to conclusions. So I’ll wait and see what new information becomes public in the next days and weeks. But it is a shame this happened at Penn State.

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