Penn State felt the need to cancel Joe Paterno’s news conference Tuesday, but allowed him to conduct practice later that afternoon. On Saturday the Nittany Lions will play host to Nebraska. Paterno cannot be allowed to lead Penn State onto the field.
In all likelihood, the Nebraska game would have been the 84-year-old’s last home date as coach if Jerry Sandusky had remained a footnote in Penn State’s athletic annals, but whatever Paterno wanted is immaterial now. At issue is if a proud university wants to be remembered as a school that was handed a last chance to do something and finally did it, or as an institution that again chose to do next to nothing.
The New York Times reports that, in May 1999, Paterno told Sandusky he wouldn’t become Penn State’s head coach when the incumbent, meaning Paterno, retired. Could it have been mere coincidence that, in 1998, Penn State had investigated Sandusky for showering with an underage male? No charges were filed, but Sandusky announced in the summer of 1999 that he would retire as defensive coordinator — at the not-exactly-advanced age of 55.
Did Penn State know back then that such a man couldn’t continue to represent it and nudge him aside? If so, why didn’t it inform the proper authorities? If so, why did it continue to allow Sandusky to hold emeritus privileges on campus and to use team facilities? This is no trifling issue: It was, according to the grand jury’s presentment, in a Penn State locker room that Sandusky was allegedly seen having sex with a 10-year-old — in 2002.
This was the act allegedly witnessed by Mike McQueary, then a grad assistant and now Penn State’s recruiting coordinator. McQueary told Paterno what he’d seen, and Paterno told his superiors, and then nothing much happened for a very long time. He was barred from bringing children on campus, but he maintained an office and reports indicate he was in the team’s weight room as late as last week. According to his lawyer, Sandusky has known he was being investigated for three years before the indictment was handed down.
Think about that. Penn State has sought to act as if this all has been a bolt from the blue, but in 1998 the school should have had cause, if not exactly to know, then surely to wonder. And here we must also wonder if Paterno, faced with a choice between what was right and what was best for his legacy, didn’t take the path of least resistance.
For all the lack of ostentation in Paterno’s image — the ugly glasses and the khaki pants and the football cleats — this is a man who cares very much about how he’ll be remembered. He once famously said he planned to keep coaching because he didn’t want to leave the sport to the likes of rogue operators Jackie Sherrill and Barry Switzer, but the Penn State Story is infinitely more distressing than any $100 handshakes with recruits. Lots of schools cheat in the attempt to get players. The program that has portrayed itself as above it all might well have concealed a predator.
When first the charges against Sandusky surfaced — and here we stipulate that he’s innocent until proved guilty — the reaction was, “How could he have kept such a life hidden?” After further review, it defies credulity that he could have. Someone had to know something. Someone had to wonder why a grown man was showering with boys and traveling to bowl games with adolescents who weren’t his sons.
In 1977 Sandusky founded a charity called The Second Mile, named after a verse from the Gospel according to Mathew, to provide aid and comfort to troubled boys. In the second paragraph of the grand-jury presentment is this chilling sentence: “It was within The Second Mile program that Sandusky found his victims.”
As a player and a coach, Jerry Sandusky had been part of Penn State from 1963 through 1999. Someone had to know something, and surely the 1998 shower incident was enough to generate suspicion even among those who didn’t want to know. Joe Paterno has been at Penn State since 1950. If he knew nothing, it was only because he wanted to know nothing.
But that’s the thing about being a head coach: You’re paid to know everything. Joe Paterno had come to be a case study in ethics in modern athletics, and he’ll retire with the most victories of any FBS (formerly Division I-A) coach ever. But Paterno also emphasized that there’s more to his job than winning, and that’s why he needs to coach no more. If he knew, he needs to go. If he didn’t know, he should have.
By Mark Bradley