As everyone with access to the internet, a cell phone, a television or newspaper is aware, the NCAA and Penn State negotiated severe sanctions for their football program in the wake of the scandal surrounding Jerry Sandusky’s serial child molestation case and the corresponding cover-up by the former Penn State President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Head Coach Joe Paterno. The sanctions were intense, including a $60 million fine to be paid over the course of the next five years, scholarship reductions including limiting the Penn State roster to 65 players for the next four seasons and limiting new Head Coach Bill O’Brien to only 15 players that he can sign to scholarships instead of the usual limit of 25. On top of that, Penn State faces a four year ban from bowl games and from the Big-10 championship game, and will be on probation for four seasons after the ban expires. As if that didn’t send a clear enough message, all of the 112 wins Joe Paterno and Penn State earned from the 1998 season through 2012 have been erased from the record books, removing Paterno as the all-time leader in wins in college football history. Ironically, the man who helped set this entire investigation in motion, Mike McQueary, was the last player to officially win a game as the starting quarterback at Penn State under Joe Paterno in 1997. Paterno’s wins have been erased, buildings named after him have been renamed, and the tailgating area has gone from “Paternoville” to “Nittanyville.” Oh yeah, and Paterno’s statue that previously stood as a reminder of all the incredible things he was able to accomplish and all the boys he was able to mold into men as head coach of the Penn State football program was removed, leaving only dirty, faded walls and jutting pieces of metal that previously anchored the statue of a fallen legend.
“Educator. Coach. Humanitarian.” He may have been the first two, but he certainly fell short of the third. Ultimately, Paterno turned out to be another cautionary tale about the corruptive tendencies of power, money and influence. He was considered to be the incorruptible face of morality and the poster boy of “winning the right way” in a time period where stories of recruiting scandals and underhanded dealings are the norm, even if they are rampantly underreported. He even went on an ESPN special with Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke entitled “Difference Makers” in which the coaches talked about how they were able to build programs where they not only molded high school kids into men who could leave their institutions prepared to contribute in a positive way to society, but also win a lot of games and national championships while they did it.
It is hard for me to watch that special in the wake of this scandal because it is hard for me to imagine how Paterno could live out this damning of a lie. He went on a nationally televised special focusing on the importance of integrity and morality while he and other senior Penn State administrators were protecting a serial child rapist that used his football program and all the glitz and glamour that came with it like candy to lure at-risk children from his own charity into his metaphorical van. I can’t imagine how Paterno could walk by his own statue and not be consumed by guilt and shame. “Humanitarian.” What kind of a humanitarian listens to another man describe the sexual assault of anyone, much less a young child, happening in a Penn State facility and doesn’t immediately go to the police? What kind of humanitarian not only tells the administrators of the university but then later manipulates them into inaction in the name of self preservation?
Not only is it hard for me to watch the ESPN special that Paterno was a featured guest on, it is hard for me to watch even the most basic coverage of the sanctions levied against Penn State on ESPN because of Penn State alumni talking about these sanctions creating “new victims” because of the severity of the penalties. Let’s get one thing clear, the players, current coaches, new administrators and the students are innocent bystanders in this situation. Sandusky took advantage of everyone in that community, betraying everyone that trusted him with children and using his reputation as a caretaker and a good man to prey on innocent boys that often needed a positive male role model in their lives. But make no mistake, even though the football program will have to deal with adversity they are in no way, shape, or form victims. They may be frustrated, they may be angry that Sandusky has negatively impacted them without ever even coaching them, but to assert that Sandusky has made them victims is insulting to the young people that he took advantage of in showers, in his house and in hotel rooms. The real victims of this case are every young boy that Sandusky sexually assaulted not only from 1998 on, but likely from 1977 (the year he started the Second Mile charity) until he was finally arrested during the football season this past year.
Let’s put this in perspective: the football team is still intact, albeit weaker than it was a year ago at this time, the players that had scholarships before these sanctions still have scholarships now, and if they don’t wish to deal with any more fallout from this tragedy they are free to transfer whenever they wish. Instead of being deprived of football for up to four seasons, a penalty that would have likely permanently crippled the Penn State football program for decades, Penn State will be playing football this season. Let’s consider that Southern Methodist (SMU) got the death penalty in 1987 and when the football team returned in 1989 the coach Forrest Gregg went 3-19 in his only two seasons as head coach. SMU continued to be largely irrelevant for the next 20 years before reaching its first bowl game since the sanctions in 2009, exactly 22 years after the death penalty was dealt to the program in 1987. That was a two year death penalty, so one can only imagine the damage a four year death penalty might have done to Penn State.
Penn State will be playing football next year, thousands of people who rely on the football team for jobs and business will not be seriously impacted by this, or at least not as seriously as they would have been had the team been shut down for the next four years. The football players will be fighting for their lives on the football field because the deck is certainly stacked against them when it comes to recruiting and roster size, but Bill O’Brien has echoed my sentiments that these severe sanctions are much better than the death penalty, and he said it succinctly “We will play football this season.” That says it all right there, but it also speaks to one of my problems with these sanctions and this scandal in general. These penalties doled out by the NCAA have drawn more attention to the football program yet again instead of focusing on the crimes Sandusky and those who covered them up committed. Mark Emmert, the President of the NCAA spoke about seeking to show that football had become the priority at Penn State and that it was unacceptable. While these penalties certainly set a precedent that suggest if anything close to this scope happens again it will incur serious penalties from the NCAA, it also draws attention to football and winning again all while talking about how that shouldn’t be the focus. Now everyone is talking about the “victims” that this has caused, and many are expressing sympathy for the football players who are being impacted by something they had nothing to do with. They certainly deserve sympathy, but they are not victims. Things could be much, much worse for them, but the NCAA’s sanctions were fairly player friendly given the circumstances. They can choose to stay at Penn State and help try to keep the football program’s metaphorical head above water or they can go to another school where they can chase more playing time, better academics or the chance to compete for a national title. The players that choose to stay at Penn State are not victims, they are players who are committed to the university, the community and the teammates they have grown to love. They are players who have chosen to remain there, not players who have been chained to the university by the NCAA. They are in fact the opposite, any potential transfer shackles that existed have been removed by the NCAA and speculation has run rampant as media and coaches alike speculate about who might leave the program and who might stay. So the players that walk onto that field wearing Nittany Lion blue and white on September 1st, 2012 are not victims, they are players who had every opportunity to leave and chose to stay. They have chosen to do what they could to heal a community that has been betrayed not only by a predator impersonating a charitable force for good, but by administrators who enabled him to continue to stalk their children that needed protection more than anyone else.
I don’t want to sound like I don’t appreciate the difficulty of what all of the Penn State players and alumni are going through. I can’t imagine the hell that the players have been put through having to try to focus on playing games amidst this scandal, not to mention just living their lives and succeeding in their classes. It isn’t fair and they shouldn’t have to deal with this, but this is an unfortunate lesson that they have to learn: life isn’t fair. All too often the strong prey on the weak, and all too often the strong use their influence to act in their own self interest. We have all had to clean up after someone else’s mess, but most of us are lucky to be able to do so without photographers taking pictures of us, without journalists writing about us and without thousands of people watching us every weekend. Unfortunately, the football players and the new coaching staff will be under a microscope, but I would be shocked if there was not an outpouring of support from the Penn State family and the surrounding community in the wake of this scandal. Everyone wants to move on after a tragedy like this, and this will be no exception. Football will provide an escape from this tragedy, even though in a twisted way it was what helped cause it, and Penn State will likely sell out their first couple of home games if not all of them. The team will likely struggle in the face of all this adversity but Penn State fans are fiercely loyal (as I have found out thanks to some of my tweets about this case and about how the players aren’t actually victims) and will support this team even if they struggle on the field.
I just don’t want everyone to lose sight of what this case has taught us. Joe Paterno was looked up to by everyone in the Penn State community and was considered to be someone who could do no wrong. He was only human after all, however, and proved why we should not worship false idols. Our society today is too concerned with elevating successful people as beacons of perfection only for them to disappoint us with a scandal or a mistake. No one is perfect, not you, not me and not Joe Paterno. The difference is, Paterno was worshiped as a perfect man who won football games while also shaping young minds into productive members of society and, if you believe the rumors, he controlled Penn State and the athletic department, not the other way around. There is certainly evidence of this, particularly the $5.5 million severance package he received (including Paterno negotiating for additional money after the Sandusky scandal broke) when he was fired from Penn State. It secured his family use of the Penn State private jet, his wife access to the Lasch football facility that Sandusky was caught assaulting a young boy in, and obviously vast financial compensation. And while no one may have had a problem with a football coach controlling an entire university prior to this scandal, clearly it is easy to see that it was a problem now. Paterno’s interest in winning and in preserving his own job prevented him from making a decision to act in the interest of basic human decency and it enabled Sandusky to assault more children before he was finally arrested for his crimes. How anyone could live with themselves after that is beyond me, and I think Paterno finally realized what he had done after he was fired as the Head Coach of the football team. I think that once he was being persecuted by some (though not many) for what he had allowed to happen it finally registered that his actions played a critical role in not just one but multiple young boys having their innocence stolen from them by a predator, and then he passed away shortly after.
This article was not meant to focus only on Joe Paterno and ignore the crimes that Sandusky committed, because clearly Sandusky is the main perpetrator in this tragic case, but the fact remains that the culture permeated by Paterno at Penn State allowed Sandusky to operate in good faith without anyone sniffing around for foul play. That is why no one asked questions when he spent so much one on one time with boys from his charity. That is why no one asked questions about young boys staying in the same hotel room as Sandusky at Penn State away games. That is why no one asked questions about boys sleeping over in Sandusky’s water-bed in his basement. That is why no one asked questions about Sandusky showering with boys alone in Penn State facilities. That is why guidance councilors that his victims went to refused to believe what they alleged he had done to them and didn’t help. That is why Sandusky told his victims that were attempting to resist future advances that no one would believe them if they accused him of assaulting them. Sandusky did many awful things, and I hope he gets over 400 years of prison time even if he won’t live to see but a fraction of it. But one of the most tragic aspects of this case is that it could have been stopped, if not in 1998 or before at least in 2001, but it wasn’t. And while Sandusky is the man who committed many of the crimes, the administrators at Penn State and Joe Paterno certainly committed crimes of their own by harboring a child molester and not reporting him to police. So while some may allege that Sandusky deserves the ire of the media more than Paterno, I would allege that while Sandusky deserves (and has gotten) plenty of attention from the media, Paterno and his colleagues are certainly not exempt.
This case is proof that just because someone establishes a charity doesn’t mean it is for the right reasons. That just because a coach gets significant media praise doesn’t mean he is infallible. And just because a coach has a statue in front of a stadium doesn’t mean he doesn’t make mistakes. That certainly stands true in the case of Joe Paterno, because even though he did a lot of great things over the course of his tenure at Penn State he made at least one critical error choosing to ignore or cover up Sandusky’s heinous crimes. Paterno’s case proves that one can spend a lifetime building trust from friends, family, and your community, but that trust can be fleeting even if you are a legendary football coach. Paterno regularly practiced what he preached, but when he needed to act with morality and integrity the most he made the wrong decision, and instead of stopping multiple assaults and protecting young boys he sought to protect himself, his football program and his legacy. And now THAT is his legacy. He could have been an all-time great football coach and a man who truly practiced what he preached and stopped a monster in his own ranks once he was made aware of it. Instead he inexplicably protected him and now his beloved football program is paying the price.