The Big Story, or: Say It Ain't So, Joe

Paul Greenberg

11/11/2011 3:30:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

If you need to be told what The Story of the Week has been, you've not only been out of the country but just plain out of it. As in asleep.

The head football coach at Penn State, Joe Paterno, is the winningest coach in 1A college football, And he had a near-saintly reputation to go with that distinction. But this week he announced he'd be retiring at the end of the year in the wake of a particularly appalling scandal. It was one that involved the team's defensive coordinator, young boys and higher-ups who ignored their duty. You could scarcely put together a more shameful story. Even in college athletics.

The coach's retirement, it turned out, was not an option. Not after one revelation followed another over the course of the week. Instead, both the legendary coach and the university's president were fired outright. Mentor, father figure and national role model Joe Paterno had failed in all those respects. After 61 years on Penn State's coaching staff, 45 of them as head coach. And then this.

Let us take solace in this much: Apparently, there is still a university in the country that takes its responsibility seriously. And expects its officials to do the same -- even its top officials. No buy-outs, no self-serving explanations, no twisting-and-weaving board of trustees. But just The End.

They do things decisively at Penn State, which speaks well of them. There was no other alternative, at least no other honorable alternative. Not in the wake of a growing scandal in which the team's former defensive coordinator was accused of molesting young boys. Even on campus. Eight boys in 15 years at last outrageous count. He's accused of trawling for them through a charitable foundation for at-risk kids. Some act of charity.

Prosecutors say that, back in 2002, an eyewitness to one of the attacks passed the word up the chain, and JoePa was informed. The coach is said to have passed the word on. It was the least he could do. Literally. Never let it be said that, in this case, Joe Paterno didn't do the very least he could.

. .

Now the head coach says that in hindsight he wishes he had done more. Like calling the cops, Coach? That would've been a good start.

The state's police commissioner put it well when he said "a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building" has a moral duty to call in the police if he has reason to suspect a child is being sexually abused. Instead, Penn State had developed "a culture that did nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others." Shameful.

You have to wonder what would've happened if that eye-witness had told his superiors at Penn State he'd witnessed the former coach buying new tires for a recruit's car. Now that might've got somebody's attention real quick, not years later. Because it's an NCAA violation. You could lose scholarships that way. And maybe a good player to Michigan State. Can't have that. But abusing young boys? Just something to be reported up the chain of command. No big deal.

. .

If JoePa had been allowed to coach another game after this story broke, you'd know Penn State had failed in its stewardship. Instead it upheld its standards, and its name. The school recognized its duty to act in loco parentis -- in place of the parent. That's an old-fashioned standard but the powers that be at Penn State, namely its board of trustees, upheld it by cleaning house. All the way to the top. Good for them. It's a standard that needs to be revived nationwide.

The moral of the story: There is still honor in college athletics. At Penn State, anyway. Here's hoping its board's firm action in this affair doesn't prove the exception in college sports but a new rule. Or rather an old one revived. It's called the Do Right Rule.

Count me among the many thousands, maybe millions, who long admired, applauded and -- I admit it -- loved Joe Paterno. He seemed the embodiment of everything that used to be fine in college sports as he made sure his student athletes were students first, the kind who graduate. In every other way he seemed to adhere to the code of a gentleman. And now this.

Sad. And if I'm disappointed in anybody more than Joe Paterno, who at 84 had earned the respect of fans far beyond Happy Valley, it's in myself. So much for my being a judge of character.