Penn State and Joe Paterno are one of those programs I've always liked. Just being unable to embrace the glitz and ever-changing uniform combinations that have become commonplace in college football, I appreciate the Nittany Lions for their simplistic style and old school coach who could've just stepped out of a 1955 copy of LIFE. Like the school I pull for, Alabama, keeping the same look along with a winning tradition has lent itself to a feel of consistency and stability. Unlike my Crimson Tide, Penn State has kept itself free of scandal and NCAA probation during that time while insisting on high academic standards, becoming a beacon of what's good in college sports.
I wonder now if it was the desire to keep that lofty platform that led Paterno to make the greatest mistake of his life.
What was his thought process that morning in 2002 when he learned of the scene in a shower room involving former longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy? How would you have reacted, hearing that about a man you'd coached before he became a mainstay of your staff for three decades?
At that point, Paterno felt he was doing everything expected of him by passing along what he knew to the proper leadership at Penn State. From there he washed his hands and proceeded with preparing for the 2002 campaign. After all, the coach was coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in his career. Voices were growing saying he needed to retire, that he was too old.
That 2002 season would end 9-4, with two losses coming in overtime and none by more than a touchdown. It appeared Paterno had Penn State back on track, but not until the past few days has the Penn State family come to feel the weight of that lapse in judgment nine years ago. There was no desire to punish the wicked and help the innocent. The resulting decree of Sandusky not being allowed to work with children near the football facilities clearly implied, as ESPN's Jay Bilas said Wednesday, "just don't do this here."
A sexual predator was allowed to go free to rape who knows how many more children. A man who should be riding with honor into the sunset stubbornly held on until the school's board did the only thing they could and fired him, effective immediately. The greatest tragedy, of course, is the untold number of young victims lost in this. Young boys at the time who needed a hero and thought they'd found it in Sandusky. Instead, they encountered the worst kind of evil -- one that seeks out the vulnerable, befriends them and then forces them to his own sick bidding.
Coaches have a special place in our society. They're often the most important male figure in a young's man's life, next to a father. Sadly, it's become more common for the coach to be the only one to fill that role. That was the story with Sandusky, and he twisted it for his own means. On that day in 2002, Paterno had the opportunity to stop it. The best, possible benefit of the doubt you could give him was he was distracted by preparations for the upcoming season. Even that falls pathetically short. Having become the face of Penn State, maybe he saw himself as its protector and wanted to hide the ugly scandal that would follow such news.
My boss and I were talking this over the other day. I asked: How does a school and program known for its integrity end up in this position? How can you not report this when you've put yourself on such a pedestal?
He pointed out I'd answered my own question. Maintaining the image had become more important than making the tough decisions that come with living by it.
Had Joe Paterno gone to the police that day, it would've brought scandal. It would've greatly damaged recruiting. Yes, it would've hurt the football program and Penn State would have paid a price. It wouldn't have been the price being paid today though, where Happy Valley has indeed become a dark place to be.
Scott Barkley is production editor of the Christian Index (ChristianIndex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention. This column first appeared at Barkley's blog, hearingit.wordpress.com
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