Thursday, November 10, 2011

“Joe Pa” deserved a better ending

Just a month ago, the thought of firing Joe Paterno would be unthinkable. Today, after 61 years of service as head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions, Paterno was unceremoniously dumped amidst allegations that one time heir apparent Jerry Sandusky was rampantly engaging in immoral sex acts with boys ranging in age from 8 to 15.

Normally, when something like this happens the next step is to examine the legacy left behind by a coach who is without peer as college football’s greatest coach. Such a nostalgic trip will have to wait as the circumstances behind this exit are much more odious, with many asking why Paterno didn’t do more to stop the scandal.

For those who are unaware of what happened, here is what we know:

· In 1977, Sandusky founded “The Second Mile” football charity for children, and continued to run the organization until 2010.

· In 1998, Sandusky faced the first set of allegations of sexual abuse against children, though this is unrelated to the indictment he is facing now. It is this allegation that is said to have led to Sandusky’s surprising resignation a year later, after being hailed as Paterno’s heir apparent for years.

· Despite the resignation, Sandusky remained employed by Penn State as “coach emeritus”, entitling him to an office in and access to the football stadium.

· According to the grand jury investigation, Sandusky assaulted a total eight boys from 1994 to 2009.

· The latest allegation involved a 15-year-old boy that Sandusky allegedly assaulted for four plus years, beginning when he was ten.

· Paterno got wind of these allegations from Mike McQueary, then a graduate assistant (and now an assistant coach), in 2002 after McQueary reportedly “walked in” on Sandusky performing an inappropriate act on a boy.

· When Paterno heard the allegations from McQueary, he immediately went to athletic director Tim Curley but did not go to the police himself.

· Curley then went to Gary Schultz, who ran the Penn State police department, and the only decision the two of them made was to prohibit Sandusky’s activities from the main campus, though they continued to allow him to operate The Second Mile at a satellite campus in Erie until 2008. This action was later approved by then Penn State president Graham Spanier.

· Because of their actions, Curley and Schultz were indicted for blocking the investigation and failing to report the abuses.

· For their parts, though police officials have criticized their actions, neither Spanier- fired as Penn State president as well today- or Paterno are facing any criminal charges, nor was Paterno cited for any wrongdoing.

· Since the case is before the courts, it’s important to remember that none of the allegations have yet to be proven.

There’s no question that if the allegations prove to be true that they are sickening and abhorrent. No one questions that- these allegations paint Sandusky as a predator at the highest level, taking advantage of youth who were already needy and lacking inner strength; and the idea that Curley and Schultz did not do their jobs and inform the proper authorities of the improprieties is doubly reprehensible. To know that needy children are being abused is one thing; for the school to know about it and do nothing about it is another. If the courts do find them guilty they deserve the fullest punishment available by law, which sadly won’t be enough to repair the damages these boys accrued.

None of this, though, should include Paterno, who should still be the coach of the Nittany Lions today.

Yes, it’s true that the visuals are pretty bad. Since when most think of Nittany Lion football they think of Paterno, the idea that Paterno let these horrifying incidents occur under his watch becomes ingrained in the heads of observers because Sandusky was running a football program on Penn State grounds. However, it is important to note that despite the fact that Paterno is the face of Penn State football, the decision to allow Sandusky on campus wasn’t his- that decision belonged to Curley, the athletic director who is responsible for hiring coaches and coordinating use of the facilities. Paterno likely has a lot of influence in those decisions, but Sandusky was operating a program outside of Paterno’s actual watch- the Nittany Lion football team- so the responsibility for allowing access to the facilities by Sandusky doesn’t fall to Paterno.

Furthermore, these allegations were reported to Paterno in 2002, three years after Sandusky had unexpectedly resigned from the Nittany Lion football program. Yes, it’s true that the allegations started while Sandusky was under Paterno’s employ, but from what we know, Paterno didn’t know of what Sandusky was doing until 2002 when, by that point, Sandusky wasn’t reporting to Paterno but to Curley, who was the one who made the decision to make him coach emeritus and allowed him to maintain the position despite the allegations. Therefore, it’s likely that Paterno couldn’t do much even if he wanted to, since the decision to fire Sandusky would not fall to him.

More to this point- and I know this is just speculation- is that Paterno acted the way he did because he didn’t want to upset the chain of command. We see this every day in our workplaces, where it’s constantly beaten into our heads that if there are any problems we have to report it to the proper supervisors. Granted, we don’t come across problems like the ones Sandusky is alleged to have caused, but we know it’s not our responsibility to “police” our workplaces- that’s the job of our superiors. Paterno, therefore, thought that Curley, being his superior and whose job it is to investigate the actions of his workers (which is not in Paterno’s job description), would take over from there.

Furthermore, it’s known that Paterno did not actually see any of the assaults take place- he only knew of the allegations because McQueary told him about them. Put yourself in Paterno’s shoes for a moment here- if you hear a story like this, what is your first reaction? Disbelief, likely, because no one would want to think that someone is abusing children on campus, let alone someone who held respect like Sandusky did. He couldn’t let something like this go, and it’s categorically proven that he didn’t- as soon as he learned of the allegations he reported it to his superior, Curley. Granted, we don’t know what Paterno and Curley discussed at that moment, but it could be that somewhere in that conversation Curley assured Paterno that he was going to take care of the investigation. Paterno, then, trusted the process and likely believed Curley when Curley- who the courts allege believed the crimes to be “not that serious”- told him that nothing was actually happening. Remember, since Paterno didn’t actually see anything he has no way of knowing anything other than what Curley- and, by extension, Schultz- is telling him. Since it’s Curley’s and Schultz’s jobs to investigate such matters, if they told Paterno nothing was going on Paterno was going to trust them. That it’s come to light that neither Curley or Schultz may not have done the jobs they were supposed to do is immaterial- at the time, all Paterno knew was a salacious rumour, and if his superiors told him nothing was actually happening, then he has no reason to believe otherwise.

It’s also possible that this isn’t the first piece of gossip that floated around the Penn State campus, and certainly isn’t the first salacious rumour that Paterno in all his years would have heard. In a macho environment that is football, anyone that remotely deviates from that mould can get all kinds of stories attached to them, not all of them pleasant. In 61 years on campus, how could Paterno not have “heard it all”? It may sound cruel that Paterno could have dismissed the Sandusky story as mere gossip, but, again, since this was just a story Paterno wouldn’t have much to act on, and, having been around for so many years and hearing so many tales, it’s possible Paterno believed this was just another one of them, especially after he was likely told that nothing wrong was actually happening.

This is what is central to the point that Paterno didn’t actually do anything wrong- the fact that he didn’t actually see anything. If Paterno had actually witnessed an event and failed to report the authorities it’d be different because then Paterno becomes part of the cover-up; but because he didn’t he did what he was supposed to and got the proper people to look into it and trust that they’d do something if something wrong was actually happening. Yes, Paterno could have done his own investigating but it’s not his job to investigate the transgressions of his colleagues, especially of those who he is not employing. The college employs people to investigate such stories, and Paterno likely trusted that they’d actually do their jobs. This touches upon the gossip point in the previous paragraph- since Paterno has likely heard many different lurid stories and since strange stories often get told of fellow coworkers (those in large companies can attest to this), no one, especially colleges or even the police, want to waste their time “chasing ghosts”. If all Paterno knows is a rumour, then he has to treat it as such- this could be serious or he could be chasing ghosts, and it’s not his job to chase ghosts- that’s Curley’s and Schultz’s job.

It is true that, knowing what we know now that Paterno likely should have acted differently, something Paterno himself admitted. We cannot apply what we know now to what happened then, and when you look at what happened then, the course of action Paterno took is understandable. Since he didn’t witness anything all he heard was a story, so he went to the people who are supposed to examine such stories and trust that they’d do something about it. That it’s come to light that they likely didn’t do their jobs properly doesn’t fall on Paterno, because it’s not “Joe Pa’s” fault that Curley and Schultz betrayed his trust. Furthermore, if the courts absolved Paterno of blame it should further the idea that Paterno does not deserve any himself- since legal courts have to follow a higher standard of proof than the “court of public opinion”, if the courts did not find any reason to indict Paterno then maybe we shouldn’t either.

All I know now is that the greatest college football coach of any generation is now disgraced by a scandal he doesn’t deserve to be a part of. Nothing, granted, can be uglier than the sex abuses perpetrated by Sandusky and allowed to continue by Curley and Schultz (if the allegations prove true), but robbing Paterno of the legacy he deserves could prove to be a crime all the same.