Back in 1999, I was driving into State College for a Penn State football game, listening to the pregame show on the radio.
They were interviewing Jerry Sandusky about his impending retirement. The play-by-play man asked him how much he had enjoyed working with Joe Paterno.
“Nobody enjoys working for Joe,” Sandusky said. “He’s hard on everyone. He demands perfection, and perfection is hard to achieve. And he lets you know about it when you fall short.”
The host sort of recoiled from the answer, but the color man cackled and said, “Yeah, Joe and Jerry don’t exactly see eye to eye.”
The color man was George Paterno, brother of the coach.
That’s what makes the defense of Joe Paterno offered by Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post and others so absolutely misguided. Jenkins’ idea was to call a shrink and ask him about the psychology of reporting one’s friends for the acts of which Sandusky has been accused.
But Sandusky wasn’t a friend. He was a co-worker, an underling – and one, by then, whom Paterno knew to be capable of some ghastly things. So what if we rethink this and view Paterno not as a man of honor who protected his friend out of misguided loyalty but as CEO of a corporation – which, essentially, is what a major college football coach is – who has discovered misdeeds by a top executive?
And make no mistake, whether he liked him or not, Paterno did protect Sandusky. He knew about the 1999 incident. He knew about the 2002 incident. He probably knew much more. Yet, he allowed this alleged predator to go on for another decade, even though he knew Sandusky was a foster parent and head of a charity that brought vulnerable children into his orbit.
And remember, Sandusky would be on the loose today if it were up to Joe Paterno. The coach can say what he wants about hindsight. But for hindsight to be meaningful, it has to come before the frog march. Ask Jack Abramoff.
The I-told-my-boss defense also does not fly for Joe. It’s fine if you start out that way. You tell your boss. You get the paper for a week. If you don’t see a story in the paper about what you told your boss, you take other action. Particularly if you’re Joe Paterno.
Because if you’re Joe Paterno, your boss – the athletic director – is not actually your boss. He can’t fire you – the AD tried once, with the help of the president of the university, and Joe rebuffed it. He can’t discipline you – Paterno’s version of right and wrong is infinitely more credible than the ADs to the people who care about Penn State football. And the performance review is done by the TV-watching, ticket-buying, suite-reserving, game-attending public, which cares all about Ws and Ls and nothing about your opinion.
It’s a little more complicated if you’re Mike McQueary. To him, Joe is much more than a friend. He is a mentor, a boss, an example of what manhood and leadership are supposed to be. If he thinks the Sandusky secret should stay in-house, it is not as easy to go against this. But go against this you must.
But back to the original question: If Paterno didn’t protect Sandusky out of friendship and loyalty, then why? And why did those whose ties are not as strong – the president of the school, the VP of finance, the athletic director – not only not come forward but affirmatively lie on Sandusky’s behalf?
There is a good chance the AD and vice president could go to prison for awhile … and perhaps longer if more details emerge.
And how big is this cone of silence? Does it include the university police? The local police? Other state officials and/or office-holders? And, again, why? What are these victims to make of the community they live in and the men who run it? Did nobody care about them enough to stand up and stop this?
This time last week, we all assumed these were decent men. The rioters in State College obviously still think Paterno is.
Why then? Why was this hidden? A lot of people think the secret inside the secret has been revealed – what on earth could be worse than a 40-count indictment for child molestation? But some other secret was bigger. That secret is worth keeping even if it means prison for some of the top officials at Penn State and, for Paterno, the loss of the job that seemed to be his for life and a reputation envied by all in his profession.
That must be one hell of a secret.