Original Post: July 13, 2012
My admiration for Joe Paterno had nothing to do with his Hall-of-Fame status, his record number of football wins, or his remarkably long tenure as head coach at Penn State.
It had everything to do with his belief in doing things the right way —- from his views on the value of hard work, teamwork and fairness, to his unwillingness to take shortcuts.
It was for the ideals he stood for. And it was his refusal to do things that went against his belief system.
Take the Penn State jersey, for example.
Coach Paterno knew that players like to have their name on the back of their jersey. He knew that his program lost some recruits to other programs because he wouldn’t allow it.
But, he didn’t care.
He wanted players thinking team-first. Other coaches may have talked about the name on the front being more important than the name on the back, but Paterno acted on his conviction and never deviated from that position, despite being pressured to change.
Joe Paterno once said:
“Many people, particularly in sports, think of success and excellence as though they are the same. They are not. Success is perishable and often outside our control. In contrast, excellence is something that’s lasting, dependable and largely within a person’s control.”
That’s the Joe Paterno that I knew.
I don’t pretend to have known him well, but with my interest in sportsmanship and fair play, we had a number of conversations in the 1980’s and 90’s.
That’s why I am at a loss to comprehend how Joe Paterno could have acted in a way that appears in direct conflict with the life he led.
I try to view behavior based on “motive”. Sometimes people do the wrong thing, but don’t realize they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing.
In such cases, I try to say, ‘They meant well’.
But the Freeh report doesn’t leave much room (if any) for such a sentiment. If the report is accurate, statements by Joe Paterno to a grand jury in January, 2011, were not truthful.
In that appearance before a grand jury in Pennsylvania, Paterno was asked if he knew of any inappropriate conduct by Jerry Sandusky involving young boys, other than an incident in 2001. His answer to the grand jury was “I do not know of anything else that Jerry would be involved in of that nature, no. I do not know of it.”
In January of 2012, a short time before his death, Paterno was interviewed by The Washington Post. In that interview, he was asked if he knew of a 1998 investigation stemming from a mother’s complaint that Sandusky had showered with her young son. Paterno replied: “It wasn’t like it was something everybody in the building knew about. Nobody knew about it.”
These statements are contradicted by the Freeh report which points to a May, 1998 email exchange about Sandusky between Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and University Vice President Gary Schultz. One, with the subject line “Joe Paterno,” read: “I have touched base with the coach. Keep us posted.” Another read: “Anything new in this department? Coach is anxious to know where it stands.”
There were no charges filed in the case.
The following year, to the surprise of many, Jerry Sandusky retired at age 55. And as the report put it “not as a suspected child predator, but as a valued member of the Penn State football legacy, allowing him to groom victims.”
Coach Paterno said he was unaware of the 1998 allegation. The Freeh report finds he was keeping close tabs on the investigation.
That’s a significant discrepancy.
Did he intentionally lie or was this a misstatement by a then 84-year old man?
Even if you give Joe Paterno the benefit of the doubt after the 1998 incident, how could he not respond strongly when a similar, but even more disturbing allegation surfaced in 2001 —- brought directly to him by someone he knows, and presumably, would trust?
According to the report, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant in the football program at the time, told Paterno that he had seen Sandusky engaging in some sort of sexual act with a young boy in a Penn State shower. According to the Freeh report, McQueary was told by Paterno ‘you did what you had to do. It’s my job now to figure out what we want to do.’
The report goes on to state “But Paterno never notified law enforcement and didn’t tell his superiors until the day after McQueary reported the incident — or two days after the assault in the shower. Paterno called Curry and Schultz. The report says Paterno didn’t “want to interfere with their weekend.”
How can one justify the ‘you did what you had to do. It’s my job now to figure out what we want to do’ response and the incredible lack of urgency to hearing an allegation of child molestation?
In it’s summary, the Freeh report stated that Joe Paterno and the three administrators (Curley, Schultz and the then school President Graham Spanier) “exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims.” The report goes on the state: “These individuals, unchecked by the Board of Trustees that did not perform its oversight duties, empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access to the University’s facilities.”
Joe Paterno prided himself on being a man of integrity, a man of strong moral fiber; a coach and mentor who stood for the right things.
How he could have so failed those young victims?
It goes against everything Paterno stood for.
The findings of the investigation show that coach Paterno (the three administrators, too) made a conscious decision to put the reputation of the school, the football program and, in effect, Jerry Sandusky, ahead of any concerns about the boys being abused.
I don’t have any idea how he rationalized it.
It leaves me feeling conflicted.
None of us would want our life defined by the worst decision we’ve ever.
And there is no doubt that Joe Paterno had a positive impact on the lives of countless numbers of student athletes and others who benefitted from his guidance, his strong support of academics, and his philanthropic endeavors.
But, there simply is no way to excuse Coach Paterno’s failure to protect those children. His actions (and those of the three administrators) were morally indefensible. It was a gross dereliction of his responsibilities as an adult, much less as a leader of young men.
Life is the sum of our actions and inactions, the millions of decisions we’ve made, the lives we’ve impacted, and the difference we have made in our time here on earth.
We all have flaws.
Hopefully, we leave the planet better in some way, than when we arrived.
We can praise and condemn the actions and decisions of our fellow man. But standing in judgment of a life lived, probably is best left to a higher authority.
I’ll simply say that I don’t feel the same way about Joe Paterno that I used to.
And that makes me sad.
Sadder still are the lives forever changed because adults, who could have stopped a child predator, didn’t do it.
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Chuck Wilson is an award-winning host, interviewer, and commentator. He was an original host on ESPN Radio and was with the network for close to 17-years. In 2007, Wilson was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He is the founder of Even Field.