At Penn State, They All Had to Go

“People today ask, ‘Is it legal or illegal?’  We used to ask, ‘Is it right or wrong?’”

Those words, from the Masters champion, teacher, and philosopher Jackie Burke, have never seemed more relevant.

Joe Paterno did everything the law requires after his graduate assistant Mike McQueary told him about the heinous act he witnessed in 2002.

And the university’s Board of Trustees did the right thing Wednesday night by terminating his exceptional career at Penn State – now, immediately, with no further delay.

Paterno fulfilled his legal duty by informing his departmental superior, Athletic Director Tim Curley, of what McQueary said.  He followed the chain of command by leaving the matter in the hands of the officials above him.

But, in truth, in State College, PA, there is nobody above Joe Paterno.

Forget the law, forget the bureaucratic niceties.  If Paterno had followed up his initial report by asking Curley, or university vice president Gary Schultz (who oversees the campus police), or the university’s president Graham Spanier what they’d found out and what actions were being taken, you can be damn sure they’d have done more than tell Jerry Sandusky not to bring young boys onto the campus any more.

The grand jury’s findings contain this devastating passage: “[There was no] attempt to investigate, to identify [the victim] or to protect that child or any others from similar conduct, except as related to preventing its reoccurrence on University property.” [Emphasis added.]

These officials instead chose to protect the reputation of a longtime figure in the Penn State football program – and by extension the program and the university itself – rather than report an alleged anal rape of a ten-year-old boy to the police and child protective service agencies.

They had to go.  They all had to go.

And surely nobody knew this better than Joe Paterno himself.

His Grand Experiment– a fifty-year effort to show that football can not only co-exist with academic excellence but can help promote it – was being used as an excuse to hide an evil secret, when hiding it meant allowing it to continue.

It’s downright Shakespearean, a monarch brought low because of his court’s efforts to guard his good name rather than embody his ideals.

We hold Paterno to a high standard, because he has always demanded that he be judged by one – usually to good effect.

It must not be forgotten that Paterno’s name has been a good one, and he has embodied a rare ideal.  His accomplishments are reflected not in a won-lost record or count of national championships, but in a library endowed, a university enhanced, a community created.

It is impossible to imagine a coach today who will mean as much to his school.  Les Miles?  Bob Stoops?  Nick Saban?  Please.

All of that makes it more painful that Paterno did not recognize the ineradicable stain placed upon his program by the events described in the grand jury’s findings.  Having failed to lead when it might have made a difference, he should have resigned as soon as the consequences of that inaction became apparent.

He left it up to the trustees to do the right thing, as he had left it to the Athletic Director and the Vice President for Finance and Business and the University President.

They all had to go.  They had to go because nothing less than a complete overhaul could begin to overcome the taint of what they did and did not do.

Joe Paterno is in no way, shape, or form a victim.  The victim is a nineteen- or twenty-year-old who lives with the memory of being allegedly assaulted by a much older and larger man in a locker room shower nine years ago – and an unknown number of young men and boys like him.

In words usually attributed to a different Burke (Edmund), “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

(published November 10, 2011)





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