In what many are calling the biggest scandal in college sports history, Joe Paterno and his Penn State Nittany Lions have been catapulted to the forefront of worldwide media for their involvement in the cover-up of allegations of child sex abuse by former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.
Sandusky, a long time defensive coordinator, retired as a PSU coach in 1999, but continued to have access to all of the athletic facilities until recently. He often brought boys from Second Mile, an organization he founded for at-risk youth, to use the facilities. According to the grand jury findings, in 2002 then graduate assistant and current assistant coach, Mike McQueary, witnessed Sandusky raping a 10 year old boy in the Penn State showers. McQueary made no attempt to stop the attack, but immediately called his parents, who told him to inform Coach Paterno and the athletic department.
Upon hearing the news from McQueary, Paterno informed Tim Curley, the Penn State athletic director, and Gary Schultz, Senior Vice President who oversaw the Penn State Police Department, of what McQueary witnessed. Neither Curley nor Schultz informed the police, but instead agreed with Penn State president, Graham Spanier, to order Sandusky not to bring any children from Second Mile to the football building. No further action was taken until Sandusky was arrested in November 2011.
Since then, both Curley and Schultz have been charged with perjury and failure to report the abuse. Sandusky has been indicted on 40 counts for various sex crimes against eight underage boys over a 15 year period. Recent media reports estimate there could be as many as 20 victims.
After the release of the grand jury findings, Penn State cancelled Paterno’s weekly press conference, inadvertently launching the scandal to a national stage. Since then, the 84 year old Paterno has been vilified by the media for failure to personally contact the police when the University failed to take action.
Although Paterno stated he would retire at the end of the football season, the Board of Trustees fired both Paterno and President Spanier on November 9th.
As a PSU law student, I have witnessed the collapse of JoePa’s legacy first hand. Once a demigod and symbol of the cleanest football program in NCAA history, Paterno is now looked upon by many with shame and disgust. But while the nation has criticized the winningest coach in Division I football history, the public seems unconcerned with Sandusky himself or the cover-up by Curley, Schultz, and Spanier. Perhaps most disgusting of all, Sandusky’s victims and their suffering has been overshadowed by the blame placed on Paterno.
That being said, I would like to offer my reasoning as to why I have supported Paterno throughout this horrifying ordeal and why I believe the media and the public has vilified the wrong party.
I would be amiss if I did not say that while Paterno did everything that is required legally, as a man renowned for his integrity, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that he violated his own moral code. However, hindsight is 20/20. Upon looking at these events, it is easy to say that Paterno should have contacted the police from the beginning. Paterno himself has stated that had he known the full extent of the allegations and if he could relive the situation, he would have acted differently.
However, while any rational person thinks they would have contacted the police if they were in Paterno’s position, the situation is not that simple. Paterno heard the information secondhand from McQueary, a then grad assistant vying for a coaching position. After hearing McQueary’s report, the decision to report it to an appropriate higher authority, expecting they would handle it appropriately, was a reasonable, human decision. Even so, when Spanier, Curley, and Schultz decided not to take action, the public and media believe Paterno should then have contacted the police. Completely ignoring the fact that Schultz had control over the police department, Paterno would have had to go over the head of the University president, who had already determined the allegations were baseless. This is assuming that Paterno was not naively blinded by the fact that the allegations were against a fellow coach and close personal friend who appeared to dedicate his life to helping children. Before November, Sandusky’s face was painted on murals around the University and the Penn State Creamery named an ice cream flavor in his honor.
From a legal perspective, even had he wanted to take further action, Paterno’s hands may have been tied. Universities are notorious for requiring all employees to take care of issues internally. Schultz, who for all intents and purposes was the head of the PSU police, personally spoke with the alleged victim, and decided, along with Spanier and Curley, not to take action. Had Paterno gone to the police or the public, not only would he be opening Penn State to a massive libel suit by Sandusky, further action would have been a direct act of insubordination. Unfortunately, this all must be viewed through the eyes of a college football program, where any misstep could mean millions of dollars of losses for the university by damaging recruiting and alumni support. This is why football coaches are required to report such incidents to personnel with the training and responsibility to deal with criminal acts and contact the appropriate law enforcement authorities.
Even so, the most disturbing aspect of this entire scandal has been the media response to Paterno’s actions – who as evident by the grand jury report is not even a key player in the investigation. As apparent in all aspects of the media, the vast majority of the business has lost sight of the true goal of reporting – informing the public – and instead focuses on what catchy headline or scandal sells the most papers. This story should be about the violent abuse suffered by Sandusky’s victims, but instead the media has made it about football. And you know what sells more than football? The downfall of a football legend that has spent 60 years building a football program and a university by avoiding the controversies that have plagued various college programs throughout the nation. If Penn State had been coached by a no-name, the stories would be about the victims and the men who perpetrated these heinous crimes, not a football coach.
If you turn on any news station, the headline is about Paterno. Based solely on the news coverage, you would think Paterno was the person raping children. Sandusky’s name has been all but forgotten, and the men responsible for the cover-up – Spanier, Curley, and Schultz – are unknown to the general public. The focus is on how Penn State (and their football program) will survive, not on the lives of the victims. Instead of doing their jobs as reporters, the media has condemned one of the few men that took action.
For those of you that are not convinced, think of the student that tells his friend not to drive drunk, or the teacher that tells the principal that her student is getting bullied. When the friend kills another driver or the bullied student kills himself, tell me where you should place blame. Nothing like hindsight to make your realize you should have done more.