Penn State U and the misplacement of sympathy

By almost all accounts, Joe Paterno was a superlative football coach, the only coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision with over 400 wins. So it comes as a severely bitter pill to many that he was promptly fired from his post in light of the sex scandal that involved assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, who was arrested for charges of molesting eight young boys over a 15-year period. Paterno was caught in this mess when the investigations into Sandusky revealed that Paterno was notified by then-graduate assistant, Mike McQueary (who is now an assistant coach with Penn State University), of witnessing Sandusky performing a sexual act with a 10-year old boy in the showers. Instead of going to the police, Paterno reported this to the athletic director, Tim Curley. The only action Curley and Penn State University senior vice president, Gary Schultz, took was to forbid Sandusky from bringing children to the football building. And according to the allegations, the university president, Graham Spanier, approved of these actions. Along with Paterno, Spanier has also been sacked.

When all this came out, Paterno announced he would retire at the end of the season. Instead he was fired. And rightly so. But what’s disturbing is that when news of Paterno’s dismissal became public, reportedly thousands of students marched in support of the disgraced coach. And this warrants a huge question mark in my head.

Just to be clear, Paterno is not up for any wrongdoing, nor is he (so far), charged or accused of anything criminal. His failing is a moral one. It’s obvious he should’ve gone straight to the police instead of to a college administrator. And let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he believed going to someone else at the university was a better idea. When he saw that Schultz, Curley and Spanier weren’t going to do anything substantial about it, he should’ve gone to the police then.

I don’t know why Paterno allowed for this monumental lapse in judgment. I can’t even begin to guess what went through his mind, knowing one of his colleagues has committed at least one act of evil, and yet aside from some Band-Aids, nothing was done to extinguish Sandusky’s access to children.

To many, this will obviously have parallels with the Catholic Church scandal. As of now, I see a difference: the Catholic Church’s silence toward decades of child abuse were a way to shore up its moral reputation. Years of scuttling pedophile priests from parish to parish, and alleged complicance from the pope (both John Paul II and Benedict), were done to shield the Catholic Church from justified moral and legal outrage. There’s no excuse for the Vatican’s response to the scandal that is seemingly never ending, and the Vatican’s response has been catastrophically insufficient.

I don’t know what possessed Schultz, Paterno, Curley and Spanier to do what they did; I cannot think it’s to protect their treasured football team – I may sound naive, but I hope that the dignity of a child is worth more than a game. As more details emerge, we’ll start to get a better understanding of what happened: Hopefully, Pennsylvania State University will be better, transparent and more proactive in its response than the Vatican.

As for Paterno – his unequivocal legacy has now been sullied for good. At 84, he won’t be able to retire in glory as he imagined years earlier, but instead, he leaves (hopefully) humbled and chagrined. But don’t cry too many tears for Paterno, as the sympathy should go to Sandusky’s victims.

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Filed under commentary, Nonfiction

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