Scandal: A Sorry Page in the History of PSU, Paterno
Never before in the history of American intercollegiate athletics has there been an instance of such dishonor and criminality as the case involving sexual assaults upon children allegedly performed by a former assistant football coach at Penn State University.
And never before has a prestigious institution suffered such a serious blow to its once fine reputation because of actions within its athletic department. One must wonder if Penn State will ever fully recover.
Joe Paterno, the most highly revered head football coach in the land, and Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, were fired by the university’s board of trustees last Wednesday as a result of this horrid affair.
The Penn State athletic director, Tim Curley, and a vice president, Gary Schultz, stepped down after being arrested and charged with perjury before the Pennsylvania grand jury that investigated this case for more than two years.
Nothing in the annals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association or in any state and local police records involving an institution of higher education compares with the horror and scope of this affair, which resulted in the arrest of Jerry Sandusky eight days ago. He was charged with 40 counts of sexual assaults on eight boys over a 15-year period going back to the early 1990s when he was still the defensive coordinator under head coach Paterno.
Many of these attacks were said to have taken place in Penn State’s football building shower rooms and in hotels while the team was at bowl and other road games, according to the 23-page grand jury report.
At this point, I interrupt this column for a disclaimer of sorts because I write this piece with a very heavy heart.
Despite what some journalists may claim about never getting friendly with their subjects, all of us in this profession do establish lasting friendships with some people we write about. It is virtually unavoidable since we are, believe it or not, human. I will say that most of us try to keep it to a small group of such friendships.
In my case, Joe Paterno has been one of my good friends since the 1950s, when he was an assistant coach to Rip Engle at Penn State. Paterno and I are the same age. I teamed with the late Merv Hyman of Sports Illustrated in 1971 to write the first of a number of books that have been written about Paterno and his Penn State football program. Hyman and I revised “Joe Paterno: Football My Way” for a second edition in 1977.
I have disagreed with Paterno a number of times over the years. But then, he has argued with almost everyone he associated with during his career. Yet in the long run, Joe and I have remained friends. Thus I admit it is not easy writing these words.
It is for me a very sad time to see Paterno dismissed in a rather ignominious fashion. However, I must admit that I feel strongly Paterno fell short of discharging his moral responsibilities by not reporting to police or other proper state authorities what he heard about Sandusky’s behavior in March 2002. This is most surprising since Paterno is an outspoken person who wore his moral integrity on his sleeve for all to see.
The grand jury claims Paterno was informed by Mike McQueary, a student-assistant coach who is now a full-time assistant coach at Penn State, that he witnessed Sandusky forcing anal sex upon a child in the football building showers. Paterno then told his boss, athletic director Tim Curley, what McQueary said.
From that point on, it appears that Paterno washed his hands of it all by assuming Curley would tell police.
During a major shakeup of Penn State personnel last week , McQueary was placed on administrative leave by the new president of Penn State, Rod Erickson. Mark Sherburne, who was an associate athletic director, was appointed acting athletic director and Tom Bradley, Paterno’s defensive coordinator, was named interim head coach.
In actual practice, Paterno was the boss of all he surveyed on campus. Yet he followed the book and went up the chain of command to the athletic director, so he was legally correct.
However, the chain of command is no excuse and does not free someone from the moral obligation to report to the police that there is a suspicion of pedophilia within the shower stalls of the Penn State football building.
Surely, Curley never did so, and he is now under arrest for perjury and failing to report a child sex assault to police. The state attorney general said Paterno is not currently under investigation for such failure.
Paterno admitted last week that he regrets not having done more. But now is too late.
Through it all, there has not been one sign of a person at Penn State reaching out to give succor to a single one of those victims. Oh, sure, institution officials have said how sorry they are for what happened to those boys, some of whom are now grown men in their late 20s.
President Obama addressed the Penn State affair Friday night from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, by saying, “The whole situation is heart breaking. We think first and foremost of the victims of these alleged crimes. It’s a good time for us to do some soul searching — every institution, not just Penn State — about what our priorities are and making sure that we understand that our first priority is protecting our kids. We all have a responsibility. We can’t leave it to a system. We can’t leave it to someone else.”
The president was there in San Diego for the “Carrier Classic” basketball game in which North Carolina defeated Michigan State, 67-55.
Big, Dirty Secret
This reminds one of the Catholic Church sex scandals over recent years. In that widespread, institutional priest pedophilia, the men in charge simply refused to report to civil authorities anything about the horrors of the cases. Instead, bishops, cardinals and other high-ranking clergy within the church simply shuffled the offending priests from parish to parish as if that would rid them of the bad apples and keep it all a big, dirty secret.
As a result, the Catholic Church suffered extremely harsh penalties through loss of prestige and honor going up into the very Vatican itself. Also, the church has been hit very hard financially through civil lawsuits that have forced some dioceses to declare bankruptcy.
Penn State can obviously look forward to lawsuits, particularly if Sandusky is found guilty as charged.
Penn Staters simply wanted to save face instead of immediately doing right by the victims. But then, it is sort of ingrained in Penn State culture to fight off any criticism and to retaliate against those who dare to say nay about the mighty and proud Nittany Lions.
After all, didn’t Paterno, the most powerful person at Penn State University for years, establish the finest intercollegiate football program on the planet? The Nittany Lions under Paterno have always been the football team with exemplary academic records and high graduation rates. Penn State is one of a half-dozen major football powers that have never been investigated by the NCAA for rules violations involving recruiting, illegal payments, academic infractions or other such nefarious activities that pale by comparison to what is happening at Penn State now.
Penn State and Paterno were squeaky clean and they bragged about it. It was their verbal coat of arms.
Then suddenly, after this investigation by the Pennsylvania attorney general, the house of cards that was Happy Valley football came crashing down around the base of the altar erected to the gods of American intercollegiate football, which was unfortunately the real center of power on the Penn State campus.
Before there was a Joe Paterno, there were barely two nickels to rub together in the Penn State University endowment fund. The campus of this land grant college was a small segment of farmland tucked away in a little niche of central Pennsylvania that was not easily accessible. Fewer than 15,000 students spent four years in undergraduate studies hidden away on acres of pasture land. About 30,000 people could fill New Beaver Field for football games on the extreme west end of the campus.
Paterno leaves after 62 years coaching at Penn State and 46 as head coach. Now the endowment is worth more than a billion dollars. Each home football game draws 107,000 fans to the gigantic Beaver Stadium on the east edge of the campus so that with television revenue Penn State makes between $70 and $80 million a year from football.
During Paterno’s tenure, the campus has more than doubled in size in number of living and educational structures, and the institution status moved from college to university many years ago.
Paterno and his wife, Sue, have given more than $4 million to the university educational facilities, including a library that carries his name.
In building this very successful football program, many people have benefited, including thousands of students. Loads of high ranking and highly paid administrators have ridden the Paterno gravy train.
Isolated and often insolated from the real world way out there in Happy Valley for so many years, these people did not cotton to much criticism. They began to believe they were too good to be found lacking in any respect.
Their problem was that the world arrived on Penn State’s doorstep six or seven weekends every year to watch Penn State win. Then, for the remainder of the year, these people of Centre County had only themselves to associate with. They spent their time patting one another on the back for the great successes of football, the vehicle that drove the institution to greatness. They acted as if they did it all while in reality it was one man, Paterno, who did it. Without him, Penn State might still be a small college hidden away in a Pennsylvania valley.
Football became king, and no one could destroy the Shangri-La of Happy Valley.
I always knew, however, that Brooklyn-born, Ivy League-educated and streetwise Paterno was fully aware of what troubles lurked. Had he not guarded successfully against such problems for years?
Then suddenly he was faced with a decision of a different nature — one so serious that maybe he could hardly believe it to be true of one of his former assistants. Certainly he did not meet his own high moral standards in this instance when he let what he knew slip by without telling police.
The result may be that this octogenarian, whose 409 victories as a head coach are more than any other major college football coach in history, will fall faster and deeper into a pit of dishonor than any other coach in the history of the sport.
I feel sorry for Joe and Sue Paterno, who have 17 grandchildren ranging in age from 3 to 16.
But if the grand jury is correct, I have much more sympathy for Sandusky’s victims, who ranged in age from 7 to 14, and who are owed something Penn State will never be able to offer — a new life.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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