The fall of Joe Paterno is the outcome of an intense investigation by the law firm of former F.B.I. Director Louis Freeh, who was engaged by the Penn State Board of Trustees to conduct an independent investigation. The report concluded that Head Football Coach Paterno, Athletic Director Tim Curley, Vice President Gary Schultz, and President Graham Spanier did indeed conspire to conceal Sandusky’s behavior from the proper authorities. The report indicated that the iconic coach had twice lied to the grand jury in testifying that he was unaware of what was going on.
The Paterno children understandably resent the vilification of their father. They wonder why the focus is not solely on Sandusky and what he did. One can understand their loyalty to their father. They like so many other Paterno fans feel the public outcry against their father is not only misplaced but unfair and without sufficient evidence.
For those of the opposite view, however, the extent, severity, and duration of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of boys make the failure to report his criminal behavior all the more egregious. If the Freeh report is correct in its findings, Joe Paterno is now posthumously paying the penalty for his own concealment of the dastardly crimes and for his influencing others to do the same. His illustrious career ended with his being ignominiously fired, and now his celebrated statue has been torn down, his coaching records from 1998 through 2011 have been obliterated, his once honored name has been permanently disgraced and his iconic image indelibly stained.
There is no debate as to whether anyone who had any part in the cover-up should be indicted. We can expect that the justice system will see to that. The level of everyone’s guilt and the degree of punishment will be determined in court. The principal culprit, Sandusky himself, has already been found guilty of 45 charges of child sex abuse and is facing possible life imprisonment. He has not yet been sentenced.
In the meantime, the NCAA, acting on the Freeh Report, has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Penn State and its football program, including a sixty million dollar fine, banning the University from participating in any post-season bowl game for four years, drastically reducing the number of scholarships they will be allowed to offer entering students, wiping out of all of Penn States’s football victories from 1998 through 2011 (111 wins), and freeing current team members or previously committed entering students to transfer and play for other colleges. Penn State President Rodney Erickson accepted the terms presented by NCAA President Mark Emmert in preference to having the football program shut down completely.
The NCAA is clearly making an example of Penn State and sending a strong message to all of its constituents, many of whom are as guilty of over-emphasizing athletics as Penn State, that flagrant misconduct will be severely punished.
Many Penn State loyalists, however, are questioning the severity of the NCAA’s sanctions, which in their opinion are penalizing too many innocent people, who had nothing to do with or any knowledge of the Sandusky cover-up. To those who feel this way, I want to say that while I share your sympathy for the innocent, that’s the usually way sin works. Individual sins have corporate implications. The sins of a few individuals impact the whole body of which they are a part, in this case Penn State University.
In Penn State’s case, one might ask furthermore, How innocent are the innocent? Or to put it another way, are all the innocent totally innocent? Were they not part of the Penn State football culture that lionized Joe Paterno to the point that he became more powerful than the President of the University? How many of the “innocent” contributed to that culture by blindly sanctioning it or by refusing to speak out against it?
Sandusky’s sins were Sandusky’s sins, but Joe Paterno’s sins were Penn State’s sins.
The legendary coach refused to retire when he was asked to, and when he finally did, he reportedly negotiated an incredibly lucrative deal for himself and his family.
All idols have feet of clay, and as the Bible states very forcefully, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” To quote an old familiar saying, “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.” Joe Paterno was a victim of his own success. He became much too powerful, and as Lord Acton once said, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Joe Paterno was a good man, a generous man, man of faith, a man of integrity. Any good person can make a mistake, and he made a serious and prolonged one, a mistake of judgment, a mistake of misplaced values. Those who knew Joe Paterno admired him for his good qualities, one of which was loyalty. He was loyal to his coaches. He was loyal to his players. He was loyal to his friends.
It was, ironically, that good quality which got him into trouble, for his loyalty to his friend and assistant coach Jerry Sandusky blinded him to his loyalty to the truth and to his duty. Protecting Jerry Sandusky was more important than protecting the boys Sandusky was victimizing!
And shielding the University from public scandal was more important to the Big Four, Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier, than the lives of the young boys who were still being victimized by a person they knew to be a child molester of the worst kind.
That’s the awful tragedy of Joe Paterno and all who had any part in the cover-up. That’s the tragedy of Penn State, a great university scandalized by the sins of one of its assistant coaches, and by the failure of its greatest hero and three key administrators to do what they should have done to stop the abuser.
Penn State will recover. I pray the victims of Sandusky’s abuse will as well.