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Penn State should have aimed higher

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa.

A rulebook is not a moral guide. There can be something shallow and dishonest about using it as one. Or, it can even be a sneaky and conniving thing.

Either way, we need to act above that.

Joe Paterno was fired as Penn State coach despite following the rules. As he should have been.

Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, too, was going by the book. He reportedly witnessed a sexual assault that former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is alleged to have committed against a 10-year-old boy in the Penn State football building showers. McQueary reportedly told Paterno the next day, and later spoke with Penn State officials.

On Friday, McQueary was placed on administrative leave. As he should have been.

The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News reported that McQueary, the receivers coach, told his players he won’t be at the Nebraska game Saturday and is in “protective custody’’ at a secluded location outside of State College, Pa., though his father later said that wasn't true.

I am suspicious of people who take too much credit for playing by the rules, who use that as some sort of evidence of moral standing. It is not.

There was something more honest about the people who threw bricks through the window of Sandusky's house Friday. Not that I endorse that. But at least the feelings of rage are honest.

For years, Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment — football with values — was trumpeted as the great example of virtue because Penn State wasn’t on probation, didn’t break the rules.

WHITLOCK: GET INVOLVED, BARACK

President must help clean up the scandal — the worst in sports history — at Penn State, Jason Whitlock says.

Now, Paterno comes off as the Great Hypocrite.

That’s because he turned Penn State into a church, basically. And it is such a dangerous, yet accepted, thing to treat football as a religion.

McQueary grew up worshipping that Penn State church. Now, he’s in hiding.

Paterno followed the rules, didn’t he? His legal obligation was to inform his superiors. That’s what he did. It wasn’t enough.

“If he didn’t immediately call police at the merest hint, alternatively he should have grilled McQueary,’’ said Davis Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“And the duration of it. . . . If it happened over a few days, that’s one thing. But how many times in those roughly 10 years since then did they pick up a newspaper and see allegations of sexual abuse? There must have been hundreds of accounts over the decade. And I can’t help to wonder how many times Paterno and McQueary and others walked into that locker room and thought about Sandusky and that boy and that (alleged) crime.

“Not once did they think, 'We should revisit that'?’’

Clohessy said Penn State's reaction to the allegations went far beyond “ineptitude, forgetfulness, laziness,’’ and he even went so far as to use the word “cover-up.’’

Cover-up or not, it is the sneakiest kind of scandal: one that followed the rules.

To be a society, we have to follow rules and laws. But that doesn’t define us as decent, compassionate, caring. We have to shoot higher.

It is particularly galling in the NCAA, where the path to righteousness is supposedly based on following an NCAA rulebook that is wholly flawed. We have too many examples of coaches reaching legendary status by following rules and, as a result, getting a pass if they fail to exhibit the kind of behavior we should really expect.

Bobby Knight comes to mind. The college basketball coaching legend followed rules, and he then used that as a position to stand above people and treat them in any way he wanted.

Why not? He was clean. He was sticking to rules.

Football coach Rick Neuheisel tried to use the rules. It seemed as if he were studying the rules to figure out how to stay within them, yet get what he wanted.

There was the story, or allegation, of how he once visited a recruit in Houston. Under rules, he wasn’t permitted to see the kid in person. So he drove to the kid’s house, called from his cell phone at the curb and told the kid to look out the window.

EMOTIONS RUN HIGH

Penn State erupts in chaos, confusion after Joe Paterno is fired. See the campus' reaction.

It’s possible that Paterno was a man of virtue all these years who just slipped up here. But this could be a slip-up with consequences that are too big, too overwhelming, to overlook.

His actions in 2002 make it appear that he was no better than so many of the NCAA cheats, putting his program ahead of what’s right and wrong. The only difference? He was mastering that damn NCAA rulebook and mastering the laws.

I am a little torn on McQueary. It’s not to excuse his actions, but to try to understand. If he walked into the showers and indeed saw what the grand jury report cites, then he should have gotten the boy to safety.

Instead, he reportedly ran off, called his dad, then fled the scene. He told Paterno the next day.

I would like to think that I would have gotten the boy away from Sandusky — who has been charged with 40 crimes in this sexual-abuse scandal — and then called 911. Possibly, to be honest, I might have attacked Sandusky. But it’s easy to say that hypothetically.

And McQueary, a former quarterback for the team, is in such a different position. He grew up roughly a mile from Penn State football games. He went to State College High and was a teammate with Sandusky’s son.

You have to factor in the culture he grew up in. If you look at Penn State as the Catholic Church, and Paterno as the pope, and Sandusky as a cardinal, then what was McQueary — a graduate assistant on the football team at the time — supposed to do?

Maybe McQueary’s whole world, whole belief system, whole future was in jeopardy. Who was going to believe McQueary? His own life and future were on the line. And if people did believe him, then the church of Penn State could come crashing down.

Again: That's not to excuse his awful behavior, but rather to try to understand it.

Did I just go way overboard?

“Not in the least,’’ Clohessy said. “In essence, from childhood, he has been an emotional part of this Paterno-worshipping, this football-idolizing culture. I have to believe that contributed to his decision to tell supervisors, not police.’’

It is so easy to compare this scandal to similar allegations that the Catholic Church has battled. In both cases, you can’t get past the question of whether people may have covered for someone they knew did wrong.

Note that I am Catholic.

“In both cases, they are powerful, popular institutions,’’ Clohessy said. “Rigid, mostly male hierarchies. They focus on public image rather than public safety. They have a desire to handle things quietly and internally, rather than handle it appropriately and externally.

CASE TIMELINE

A chronological look at the case against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

“The Catholic scandal didn’t erupt because top officials ignored suspicions and red flags. They ignored clear reports of abuse. The same thing here.’’

Clohessy said he grew up Catholic and claims he was abused for years by a priest.

Still, even if McQueary was too intimidated to do anything about Sandusky that day, he spent nine years seeing Sandusky, then retired, around the football office.

On top of that, consider that in 2008, McQueary and other coaches helped break up a scuffle among a teammates that involved a knife. McQueary didn’t run away and call his dad.

On Friday as on Thursday, Paterno stayed in his house all day. Dozens of people, strangers and fans, went to the door and rang the bell. Paterno’s wife answered, and the fans left wrapped gifts, cookies and notes. Some stuffed flowers in the storm door.

It felt like a wake. And while it was touching, it also was an insult to the victims.

In the end, protocol and rules were followed. People say we are a nation of laws. But Paterno lives trapped in his home. And McQueary is in protective custody, real or figurative.

All for following the rules.

Tagged: Penn State

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