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Sandusky and Paterno

Jerry Sandusky (left) and Joe Paterno in 1999 (Paul Vathis/AP file)

He was once a paragon of virtue–the one guy in college football who actually won with integrity.  Well, that was then….  Now, even his most die-hard fans have to qualify their kind words for Joe Paterno.  “Well, he did so many great things, it’s a shame that this one mistake….”  But according to the report released by former federal judge and FBI director Louis Freeh, that “one mistake” was followed by another, and probably preceded by others.  Freeh didn’t call it a mistake; he suggested a cover up.

According to the New York Times:

One new and central finding of the Freeh investigation is that Mr. Paterno, who died in January, knew as far back as 1998 that there were concerns Mr. Sandusky might be behaving inappropriately with children. It was then that the campus police investigated a claim by a mother that her son had been molested by Mr. Sandusky in a shower at Penn State.

Mr. Paterno, through his family, had insisted after Mr. Sandusky’s arrest that he never knew anything about the 1998 case. In fact, he had testified under oath before the grand jury hearing evidence against Mr. Sandusky that he was not aware of the 1998 investigation.

But Mr. Freeh’s report asserts that Mr. Paterno not only knew of the investigation, but followed it closely. Local prosecutors ultimately decided not to charge Mr. Sandusky, and Mr. Paterno did nothing.

The decision not to charge was described by prosecutors as a “close call.”  Ultimately, they decided that, given the “he said”/”she said” nature of the case, and the fact that Sandusky was, after all, a highly respected figure on Paterno’s staff, it would be too difficult to win a guilty verdict in a local court.

But it’s not like Penn State “did nothing” after this incident.  They let Sandusky retire after the 1999 season (at the relatively young age of fifty-five)…with “emeritus” status, a bonus of $168,000, and the keys to the locker room next to those infamous showers.  This is where the stomach turns.

In 2001 former quarterback and graduate assistant Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky raping a child in the Penn State locker room showers.  He told Paterno about it the next day.  Given the context of the 1998 case, you would think that Paterno would have done everything in his power to make sure this guy was locked up forever, or at least locked out of the gym.  Instead, he chose the path of bureaucratic least resistance, pushing it to his supposed superiors (really, can anyone claim to have actually been Joe Paterno’s boss at Penn State?).

But you could make the case, as Paterno’s family has, that the law required him to do so (Freeh disagrees).  However, it is the way events unfolded thereafter that really brings Paterno’s integrity into question.  Nothing was done–by him, his superiors, or anyone.  Neither local nor state police were called, and the school’s attorney wasn’t even consulted…all this despite the cloud hanging over Sandusky after the 1998 case.  Certainly, the president and the two vice presidents who lost their jobs over this were culpable, and perhaps Paterno could claim some degree of plausible deniability in what the university did (or didn’t do).  But he cannot claim innocence.

How could a man who knew that one of his most highly regarded assistants–the defensive coordinator of “linebacker U”– had been accused of child molestation just a few years before, and then was caught in the act by another assistant, simply let it go?  How could anyone in his position ignore the silence for ten years?  The clue, I think, is in his alleged false testimony about the 1998 case.  To reveal that he knew about the 1998 accusation would have exposed Paterno as a fraud, a vain hypocrite whose only real concern was with his reputation as a man of integrity.

Nevertheless, Paterno has his defenders…fewer and fewer it seems as the light on this scandal intensifies.  Most of them argue along the lines laid out by his family, which released the following statement in reaction to the Freeh report.

The idea that any sane, responsible adult would knowingly cover up for a child predator is impossible to accept. The far more realistic conclusion is that many people didn’t fully understand what was happening and underestimated or misinterpreted events.

What exactly is unclear about multiple accusations of child rape?  What they “underestimated” and “misunderstood” was the damage that their preoccupation with their own reputations did to the lives of all of those children who were attacked by their beloved assistant football coach.

So enough about Paterno the “great man.”  Yeah, he did a number of very good things, including donating a large chunk of his own money to public education.  But all the libraries, physics labs and humanities programs in the world won’t heal the shattered souls of those damaged human beings who paid the cost of his vanity.