If you’re a fan of major college football, like yours truly, you recognize the silent bargain made to embrace the sport, a tacit tolerance of a level of presumed unethical behavior and academic dereliction to indulge in the rivalries and revelry of fall Saturdays.
But what transpired at Penn State goes well beyond the pale of that willful suspension of rectitude, far beyond crooked coaches, ineligible players, and backroom recruiting deals.
The curtain has been ripped away from the Penn State football program, and it turns out the Nittany Lions’ omnipotent wizard, coach Joe Paterno, was the biggest charlatan in a sport chock-full of them.
For years, Paterno, major college football’s seemingly avuncular dean and all-time winningest coach (409 victories), and his Penn State program were held up as paragons of probity in a sport largely devoid of it. Now, we know that the late coaching legend was no different from his win-at-all-cost peers, except he was willing to sacrifice much more than arbitrary NCAA rules in the pursuit of victory.
In Paterno’s case, that constituted behavior more grave than overlooking a player getting lavish gifts from a marketing rep, or swapping memorabilia for tattoos. It meant enabling a sexual predator and ignoring his victims.
That’s the conclusion drawn after reading the independent investigation commissioned by Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. The results of the investigation were made public on Thursday. Sandusky, who served as a defensive assistant to Paterno for 30 years, was convicted on 45 counts of sexual abusing boys last month in Centre County (Pa.) Court.
Spearheaded by former FBI director Louis Freeh, the investigation entailed interviewing 430 people and sifting through more than 3.5 million documents to determine that Paterno, former Penn State University president Graham Spanier, now-retired vice president Gary Schultz, and athletic director Tim Curley conspired to conceal Sandusky’s actions “in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity.”
The consequences of their actions were much more dire than bad publicity. Just ask Sandusky’s victims, the same victims the report concluded Paterno and other Penn State powerbrokers exhibited a “callous and shocking disregard for.”
“The facts are the facts,” Freeh told reporters. “[Paterno] was an integral part of the act to conceal.”
It’s never fun to disparage the deceased. But this report detailed that any defense Paterno could muster would be ludicrous.
At best he was willfully and purposely negligent about the full scope of Sandusky’s lurid conduct. At worst, Paterno purposely buried unspeakable actions from the authorities and gave Sandusky the continued means to molest young boys, all in the name of preserving his football fiefdom and quest to become the winningest coach in Division 1A/1-AA history.
Paterno knew about the May 1998 incident with Sandusky showering with an 11-year-old boy in the Penn State football building. According to the report, Curley told Schultz and Spanier he had checked in with Paterno and “Coach is anxious to know where it stands.”
But the real smoking gun is the reverse Paterno called in 2001, after graduate assistant coach Michael McQueary witnessed Sandusky defiling a boy in the Penn State showers and reported it to the Penn State patriarch.
“Based on the evidence, the only known, intervening factor between the decision made on February, 21, 2001 by Messr. Spanier, Curley and Schultz to report the incident to the Department of Public Welfare and then agreeing not to do so on February 27th, was Mr. Paterno’s February 26th conversation with Mr. Curley,” said the report.
Six months later, Sandusky assaulted another boy in the Penn State showers.
Obviously, Paterno’s famed Coke-bottle glasses didn’t allow him to see right from wrong because he was blinded by protecting his friend, his program, and his legacy.
You wonder if Paterno would have been more willing to follow through with the original plan of turning in Sandusky back in 2001 if he hadn’t been coming off a 5-7 season, which at the time marked just his second losing season at Penn State, and running neck and neck with Florida State’s Bobby Bowden for the all-time victories crown.
Paterno coined a mantra that became synonymous with Penn State’s reputation as that rare big-time football program that can win without taking shortcuts in the classroom or bending the rules — “success with honor.”
That phrase could not ring more hollow in Happy Valley than it does now. There’s little that feels honorable about Paterno’s five undefeated and untied seasons and two national titles in 46 seasons on the sideline, especially when you consider the last game he coached, a 10-7 victory over Illinois on Oct. 29, 2011, Sandusky was sitting in the Nittany Lion Club at Beaver Stadium.
This report should be required reading for every college president and board of trustees member, a reminder that it’s dangerous to deify a coach to the degree that his agenda becomes the school’s.
While Paterno did positively affect the lives of thousands of his players and Penn State alumni, he fell woefully short of living up to the ideals and integrity he preached.
Sadly, the great JoePa was really no more scrupulous than Pete Carroll or Jim Tressel. He was willing to look the other way in the name of furthering a football brand.
Penn State announced Friday it planned to renovate the locker rooms and the shower area in the football building where Sandusky preyed on boys.
The stain of what Paterno allowed to happen there can’t be washed away that easily.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.