Joe Paterno passed away Jan. 22. Officially, the cause of his death will be listed as lung cancer, but the truth is Paterno died because his reason for living disintegrated before his eyes. Paterno spent 46 seasons patrolling the sidelines as the head football coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. He won two national championships, the first in 1982 and the second in 1986. Year after year, parents entrusted Paterno with their sons. He was a father figure who could be trusted with the responsibility of giving these young men a guiding hand as they began their journey from youth into adulthood. Paterno was a football god until we found out he had feet of clay.
Unknown to the general public, Paterno’s kingdom began to crumble in 1998 when the mother of an 11-year-old boy reported to authorities that Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s defensive coordinator, showered with her son and that there was inappropriate contact between the child and Sandusky. Sandusky admitted to showering with the boy but told authorities that nothing inappropriate took place. Sandusky at this time also promised that he would never do it again.
Although no charges were filed after the investigation, Sandusky retired in 1999. This is when Paterno should have brought the hammer down on his old friend. Once Sandusky retired, Paterno should have never let him on the Penn State campus again. Through his admitted actions, Sandusky had shown to have questionable judgment at best, and for Paterno, that should have been enough for him to show Sandusky the door and lock it behind him. But Paterno did not want to turn his back on his longtime assistant. Instead, he gave Sandusky an office in the Penn State facilities and gave him complete access to the program to help Sandusky with his Second Mile Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up to help the youth of Pennsylvania.
Joe Paterno’s poor choice came back to haunt him in 2002 when then graduate assistant Mike McQueary discovered Jerry Sandusky in the locker room showers with a young boy. McQueary reported what he saw to Paterno, and Paterno in-turn reported it to his superior. Paterno did the right thing by reporting the incident to his athletic director Tim Curley but then everything fell apart. When a young boy needed someone to stand up and protect him, no one came to his aid. Instead of calling the police these men passed the buck. Tim Curley, according to grand jury testimony, told the Second Mile Foundation that an internal investigation had been conducted concerning the incident and no wrongdoing was found to have taken place.
Finally, in 2008, a mother reported to her son’s high school that her child had been sexually abused by Sandusky. The principal of the high school immediately barred Sandusky from the school grounds and called the police, something that should have been done at Penn State six years earlier.
I understand that Joe Paterno is not solely at fault in this tragedy. There are many people who should have stepped up and done the right thing, but, when it comes to Penn State’s involvement in these incidents Paterno was the first line of defense. We have been constantly told throughout the years about the honor of this man. How in his profession he was the standard bearer that all others should look to as an example of how to do things the right way. What we found instead was a football coach, who along with the people around him shrank from their responsibilities. These men showed greater concern for their jobs, and the Penn State football program, than they did for the wellbeing of innocent children.
Joe Paterno has died. His accomplishments on the football field should be viewed for what they are, the record of a football coach. As for the man himself, I am sure he had a good heart, and I am sure he always had the best of intentions.
It is just very sad that when the real game was on the line for these young children, Joe Paterno was nowhere to be found.