Joe Paterno emerged from his home Tuesday night, prodded onto his lawn perhaps by the loving chants of hundreds of students clamoring to show him support.
“We want Joe!”
“We want Joe!”
“We want Joe!”
The dark all around, the grass before the brick ranch engulfed by chanting young people, he finally emerged. In hiding all day, he at last came of his own volition, drawn by the hope of no questions, of no hard answers, of only love and adulation.
“We want Joe!”
I ended up shoulder-to-shoulder with Joe, and like a few others shouted what needed to be shouted: Had he made mistakes? Could he explain why this was able to continue nine years after he was warned? Why had he not called the police? The questions drowned underneath the frantic cheers for Penn State, for Joe, for blind admiration for a man because he can coach football, allegations of sex abuse be damned.
“We want Joe!”
“And I want you!” Paterno said. “It’s hard for me to tell you how much this means to me. You guys have lived for this place. I’ve lived for people like you guys and girls. I’m just so happy to see that you feel so strongly about us and about our school. And as I said, I don’t know if you heard me or not, is, you know, the kids who were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you. But anyway, you’ve been great. You’ve been really great.”
“Who are we?!”
Is he kidding? Did he just lead a pep rally on his lawn after all of this? Had he just said, “Whatever they want to say?” He had. They want to say rape, Joe. The victims want to say lives have been ruined. They want to say, to you I would imagine, “Why?” But the students around him would have none of it.
“Let Joe stay!”
"We are!" Paterno shouted.
“Penn State!” the crowd responded.
Listen up, America. This is what men who wrap themselves in the NCAA rulebook look like when darker sins — in this case the sin of omission — spring up. Bobby Knight never cheated, he did it the NCAA’s way, and he was a raging bully coddled by most everyone. He was sainted for following a blighted organization’s silly sense of self-righteousness despite the need to lord over the weak. And Paterno? Turns out he’s just a coward more concerned about covering his own behind than the watching out for the well-being of kids. Some leader. Some molder of men.
This unseemly spectacle on the front of Paterno’s lawn was the perturbing end to a day in which Joe Paterno the Great Man bathed in a brand new reality for himself and his program: a public-relations prison of his own making.
On Tuesday, Paterno’s path to Penn State’s football practice underscored the new realm to where he, his reputation and his program have been transported days after the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator.
Sandusky allegedly sexually abused eight boys over a 15-year span. According to one report, that number has more than doubled in the past day as more victims have come forward. It’s all a grotesque shock that also has led to charges that university officials covered up the crime after being informed in 2002 and that Paterno himself failed morally in not ensuring the alleged abuse stopped.
So outside Paterno’s home earlier Tuesday, reporters clustered around him as he made his way to his car.
“I know you guys have a lot of questions, and I was hoping I would be able to answer them today, but we’ll try to do it soon, as soon as we can,” he said. “Can’t do it today.”
That wasn’t good enough. Not for those there, not for anyone rightfully wanting answers, not for any right-minded person well aware that protecting children from sexual abuse trumps any football program or football coach. So reporters began shouting questions.
“Guys, Coach has to get out to practice,” a man said. “Out of his way please!”
Not far away, at the practice facility, young men began to place plywood against a green-and-silver chain-link fence, hoping to block the dozens of journalists peering from the other side.
Then a few hours after he left his home came the on-campus car chase.
At about 4:25 a silver car appeared near the practice facility. Joe’s wife Sue was behind the wheel, Joe seated next to her. He looked small and weary. They pulled up before us as if he was going to speak, and we crowded around, eager to hear him out.
Sue Paterno hit the gas.
She drove further up the rectangle-shaped parking lot, near a corner of Holuba Hall, near the Lasch Football Building where Sandusky allegedly had anal sex with a young boy in 2002 — the same incident then-graduate assistant and current wide receivers coach Mike McQueary allegedly witnessed. The same incident that led him to tell Paterno, according to a grand jury report, and as we all know by now an incident the police subsequently never heard a word about.
Let’s point this out again: That was nine years ago. Eleven months ago Paterno testified to the grand jury. And just last week Sandusky reportedly had access to Penn State facilities.
So the reporters, myself included, sprinted to catch the silver car, hoping to ask Paterno a series of questions centered on one word of moral outrage: Why? I know that was the singular thought on my mind as I sprinted with my colleagues: To get answers from a supposed leader of men, a powerful man, about why he didn’t do more. About why he allowed this man to allegedly prowl for children for nine more years. So many whys.
We reached the car. Again we thought he would emerge. Then Sue Paterno hit the gas again, and the chase continued.
The dozen of us chased the car, back toward the Lasch Building, then right and out of the parking lot, then right and down a road, all of us weary and wheezing and sucking for breath. The car went into a different parking lot, and those of us that had caught up approached again. Again Sue Paterno hit the gas, carrying her disgraced husband in a blur back toward Holuba Hall.
This is what it has come to: Joe Paterno’s elderly wife must use a silver Toyota Camry to avoid — and wear out so they give up — those asking questions that absolutely should have been answered by now.
At least one other car ran interference in the avoidance scheme. As I ran after Paterno, back toward Holuba Hall, with Lasch on my right, a blue four-door blocked my way. I waited. The driver, who headed to Lasch a few minutes later, motioned for me to go. I did, running a few feet in front of his car, and then he accelerated toward me, breaking at the last moment as I jumped out of the way.
This, too, is what it’s come to: The faithful doing anything they can to be sure the Great Man does not have to address things no great man should ever allow to continue.
Can these evasions get any more ridiculous?
By the time I caught up, two journalists and I just had time to see the car slip into an open loading dock door. The Camry slipped in, Joe Paterno stepped out and the door closed. A few minutes later the door opened and out drove Sue Paterno. She went slowly this time, alone, no eye contact, heading home.
The absurdity of Paterno hiding — if he wants to speak, as he claims, then speak — was enhanced by Tuesday’s news. The New York Times reports plans are in the works to oust him as head coach in the coming days or weeks. The cancellation of his Tuesday morning press conference, and then Paterno’s son reportedly claiming the president’s office canceled the talk, and the president’s office reportedly saying it did no such thing.
This, surely, is why people like Lauren Acquaviva sat on campus on the steps of Old Main for part of the day Tuesday with a sign that read: “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
She was there with her 10-month-old son and husband. A woman walking by saw the sign and yelled, “Good for you!”
“Anyone who knew about it and chose not to call the police and not to call child services should resign,” she said. “If that includes Paterno, he’s not exempt from the same moral standards that everyone else is being held to. I think McQueary and Paterno and (university president) Graham Spanier need to resign because they chose to do nothing.
“I have a 10-month-old son,” she said. “I can’t imagine how I would feel if I found out that something like that happened and that someone witnessed it and that other people knew about it and they chose to do nothing. I just think that if it were anyone but Paterno, the entire community would be calling for a resignation. But he’s a figurehead, and we don’t want to think that of him.”
And it is primarily for that reason that Paterno’s front lawn turned into the circus it became in the evening.
But there is much, much anger as well. Brandon Kim, a 21-year-old senior from Brooklyn, walked up to Acquaviva and her husband and said quietly, “Kudos to you too for protesting with your child. Well done.”
So it was strange, at that same spot at Old Main later in the day, dark well upon us, that dozens of students sat on the steps and chanted their support. Two unfurled a sign that read, “Paternonator.” A chant broke out, at the same place where hours earlier Acquaviva had laid her reasoning for placing blame wherever it may fall.
“I believe in Joe Paterno!” a girl screamed.
“I believe in Joe Paterno!” the crowd echoed.
“I believe in Joe Paterno!” she screamed again.
“I believe in Joe Paterno!”
So it had come to this. For much of the day a thoughtful woman, her baby in hand, her husband at her side, had sat on these same steps hoping to remind anyone she could that evil can triumph when good men stay silent. And then the students came, the masses, occupying the same place she had — but now celebrating the man who had stayed as silent as anyone.
This, too, is the world Joe Paterno and his football program now inhabit: one shaped by the silence, one in which the question of culpability — of evil — rests in how easily we excuse the kind of cowardice that leads to the worst kind of crime.