Now is not the time for silence
The exact wording of the phrase will take many forms, but repeatedly in the coming weeks you’ll hear that it is too soon to reflect on Joe Paterno’s failings as a coach, a teacher, father and a human being. Now, we will be told, is a time to give the family peace in his passing and to reflect on the many good deeds that Paterno took part in throughout his long and storied career at Penn State.
While I think we all share in extending our genuine sympathies to the Paterno family and to all those who loved and cared for one of college football’s most iconic figures, speaking out about where Paterno fell short is not only appropriate it is vital to avoid the kind of deification that has repeatedly threatened to white-wash his complicity in the alleged Sandusky child rapes.
In fact, avoiding the topic would help to dull one of the few positives to emerge from this case: a sustained national dialog on the impacts of sexual abuse and what can be done to prevent that abuse on personal, procedural and public levels.
Putting the parties in perspective
Such a preface should be unnecessary, but given that it’s been a consistent line of distraction and outright defense of Paterno I feel it’s worth noting that the evils that Sandusky committed are without comparison. The repeated luring, victimization and manipulation of vulnerable young boys outlined in the grand jury presentments and associated documents are among some of the worst things I’ve read.
As we discuss Paterno understand that this is not and has never been up for debate. Any person with a functioning moral compass would acknowledge that if proven true the crimes Sandusky allegedly inflicted on these children are without peer among the crimes committed at Penn State, both of the legal and moral variety.
That said, what is the greater hazard to society? That monsters like Sandusky exist? Or that people like Paterno help foster environments in which they can thrive.
Paterno the football coach
The numbers that Paterno put up over the totality of his 45 seasons as head of Penn State’s football program are of course impressive: 409 wins, 24 bowl wins, a nearly .750 winning percentage, 2 National Titles, 3 Big Ten Titles and a nearly innumerable number of accolades including a number of coach of the year awards and the 1986 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. What the man accomplished on the football field was both impressive and inspiring, as was his dogged determination to fight aging and stay on the sidelines despite his advancing age and declining health.
The question we’re now forced to ask is did his determination to stay on those sidelines impact the way he chose to respond to the Sandusky accusations?
The mistake many Penn State fans make is conflating Paterno’s quality as a human being with his quality as a football coach. The Nitanny Lion football team is woven into the culture of Penn State in a way that is unique to college football, and the way Paterno became synonymous with the program is equally unique.
Paterno was a good football coach with a series of good staffs that posted a lot of wins in his 45 years. That speaks highly of Joe Paterno the football coach but it tells us nothing of Joe Paterno the man.
Paterno the man
We are not a culture that takes sexual abuse seriously enough. If we were the Catholic church would be out of business after choking from lack of donations from their deep-pocketed US parishioners while collapsing under the weight of an unyielding assault of lawsuits stemming from their active efforts to cover up the systematic rape of children who had been trustingly and lovingly left in their pastoral care.
Likewise our sports culture does not take sexual abuse very seriously, and Paterno’s reaction to both the accusations involving Sandusky and even incidents outside of Penn State speak to that.
In 2005 on the eve of an Orange Bowl match-up between Florida State and Penn State, Florida State Linebacker A.J. Nicholson was suspended after being accused of sexually assaulting a 19 year old woman at a Hollywood, FL resort. Paterno’s reaction?
“There’s some tough — there’s so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do?”
“Geez. I hope — thank God they don’t knock on my door because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms,” Paterno continued. “But that’s too bad. You hate to see that. I really do. You like to see a kid end up his football career. He’s a heck of a football player, by the way; he’s a really good football player. And it’s just too bad.”
Hours after a rape and sexual battery may have occurred Paterno’s concern was first for his kids being trapped by a woman falsely accusing them of rape and then for the football career of A.J. Nicholson, a man with two strikes already to his name at that point with DUI and resisting arrest charges. Not an ounce of sympathy or concern for the woman, just frustration that a player may have hurt his career by sexually assaulting a woman.
Those kind of statements might have been enough to get some coaches dismissed, but not a coach with his tendrils so deeply woven into the Penn State culture and program. Not a coach who defied administration efforts to fire him and ordered them off his land. His entitlement and distance from reality was obvious in response to the criticism he received:
If my kids calls for [my resignation], if my squad calls for it . . . but when people don’t know what they’re doing are looking for publicity or trying to give publicity to their cause or looking for some sort of scapegoat, no, it doesn’t bother me,
There are certain causes in this world that should be universal, and preventing woman from being sexually assaulted, abused and battered simply has to be one of them. Especially in the collegiate world where, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a culture of secrecy actively hampers efforts of sexual assault victims to seek justice.
According to the legend of Paterno he was a man who not only coached football teams but helped mold young men. Young men that were charged with over 163 separate crimes over a 6 year span from 2002 to 2008 including defensive lineman LaVon Chisley who was charged with stabbing his roomate 93 times in the spring of 2006. When asked about what would for any coach be a serious string of off the field incidents Paterno waved them away with the impatience of a cranky school master and chided reporters for wasting his time with a witch hunt when he had games to worry about.
It’s the same attitude that continued when he interrupted an impromptu rally on his lawn, complete with Penn State students bouncing and performing an a cappella version of Seven Nation Army to blather a brief but convoluted statement about the children allegedly raped under his watch:
The kids that were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. Tough life, when people do certain things to you. Anyway, you’ve been great. Everything’s great, all right.
Victims or whatever they want to say. Say a prayer. Tough life.
Not to worry, Joe quickly got back on message. Shortly thereafter he told the students, who had lined up 25 deep around his house to tell him how much more they cared about football than the victims of sexual assault, that he was proud of them and to BEAT NEBRASKAAAAA! The latter punctuated with a surreal, half-hearted old man fist pump.
The same bizarre priorities were present when the Board of Trustees made their decision to dismiss Paterno, despite his transparent attempt to gain control of the narrative by telling the media he was retiring after the season and that the board shouldn’t spend any more time talking about him.
Shortly before 10 p.m., Fran Ganter, the associate athletic director for football, delivered an envelope to Paterno’s home, just off of Penn State’s campus. Inside the envelope was a telephone number. Paterno called the number, and Garban answered. Then he passed the telephone to Surma, who was seated next to him. Surma asked if Paterno could hear him O.K. Paterno said that he could. Then Surma told Paterno of the trustees’ decision. “The board of trustees has determined effective immediately you are no longer the football coach,” Surma recalled saying.
Then he heard a click. Paterno hung up.
Surma and Garban sat at the table for a moment, numb. Then the telephone rang again. Surma answered. It was Paterno’s wife, Sue, who said, during the short conversation: “After 61 years, he deserved better.” Then she hung up on Surma.
You know who deserved better? The victim allegedly pinned against the wall of Penn State’s showers and anally raped. The children that Paterno’s inaction and indifference continued to give Sandusky access to. The boys reportedly forced to endure oral sex at the hands of Jerry Sandusky, and who were then in turn forced to commit similar acts on him. The young men who will now forever live damaged lives tossed aside by a society that would rather ignore sexual assault than confront it and often seeks ways to blame the victims rather than the perpetrators of these heinous acts.
Still, all these rapes can’t be that important can they? They weren’t important enough for Paterno to consider interfering with the weekends of school officials to report McQueary’s accusations in a timely manner.
Who else is to blame, and where do we go from here?
Despite his attempts to cast himself as a helpless old man when it suited him, Paterno ruled over that program and school with an iron fist. Still, there are many others who share some level of complicity with Paterno when it comes to overlooking Sandusky’s troubling behavior. Former Penn State VP of Finance Gary Shultz and university president Graham Spanier have already been essentially dismissed, but questions remain about their conduct that require both legal and public response.
WR Coach Mike McQueary, even if he did hand things over to his superiors, has much to answer for with regards to not following up when it was clear nothing was being done to deal with Sandusky or to curb his access to either Penn State facilities or young boys.
There are countless people within Penn State and the Second Mile that likely could have stepped in and stopped this at any time, but the environment that men like Paterno created helped make keeping quiet a hell of a lot easier than doing the right thing.
If your first though upon hearing that a child was being raped is ANYTHING but how to help that child and how to prevent it from happening again then there is something seriously wrong with you. There remains something seriously with a lot of people with far too much influence over Penn State.
Who killed Paterno?
After over 50 years at the university, 45 seasons as its head coach and patriarch no single man has as much to do with forming the community and culture of Penn State as Paterno. It is both his legacy and the weight which will drag down that legacy as more of this case comes to light. The message sent when the public turned on Paterno was clear: we don’t care how good you are in the sports world, if you let down our children you are a failure.
That ultimately will be Paterno’s legacy: a tired old man too concerned with protecting his little fiefdom to risk any bad press that might come from doing the right thing.
It is the crumbling of that legacy and the scrutiny that he faced following these allegations that many are currently blaming for his demise. Though at the time of this writing his exact cause of death has not been revealed, I would hazard a guess that his advanced age, repeated major physical traumas over the past few years and the aggressive cancer ravaging his body may have had more to do with that. Enduring chemotherapy as a young man is a challenge.
Doing it as an 85 year old man recovering from major hip operations, pelvic fractures and other maladies that come from being 85 years old man is perhaps an insurmountalbe challenge.
Do you believe that a man who slept soundly while his long-time friend allegedly continued to rape boys struggled so deeply with public perception of him that it eroded his physical condition and robbed him of the will to fight? Go back and watch that video of him outside his house, as details of this horrific string of rapes continued to emerge, and watch him lead that group in cheers.
This is man who lived his life in a bubble and died almost certainly believing he was totally in the right.
Still, it’s not all bad. Penn State students did after all set up a candlelight vigil in honor of the victims of sexual assault on their campus:
Just kidding. It was in honor of the man who helped allow that sexual abuse to continue for decades.
If you need an example of why now is the right time to remind people just how unacceptable Paterno’s silence was there you go.
There are no number of games a coach could win that would make up for even a moment’s inaction in confronting a monster like Sandusky and preventing him from harming another child, there are no words to fully express the harm that sexual assault does to a person in this society and there is simply no excuse that can be made for the way Paterno conducted himself throughout this scandal.
I am sorry that Paterno has died, as I am sorry when any life passes, however that should not and cannot deter us from having the vital continuing dialog we must have about sexual abuse of all varieties in this country.
Sandusky remains a monster, but Paterno’s inaction makes him a villain no matter how many football games he won.