Column: They did Paterno wrong
The only thing people love more than watching a star claw his
way to the top is watching him fall.
So add Joe Paterno’s name to a far-from-complete list of
athletes who plummeted from grace in recent years: Tiger Woods,
Michael Vick, O.J. Simpson, Magic Johnson and Barry Bonds. Their
sins were not the same, nor were their fates. But they were all
banished to a kind of purgatory from which – for most of us – there
is no return.
I won’t defend any of them, or attempt to rank the seriousness
of their transgressions. That’s St. Peter’s job.
But I’ve argued in the past that all of the above – except O.J.
– should be allowed to return to their work after suitable
punishment. I also wrote that Paterno had earned the right to coach
for the remainder of Penn State’s football season.
So I’ll say it again: They did him wrong.
Whether or not he averted his eyes to the child sex abuse that
longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with
The reaction was swift and hardly surprising. More than a few
people wrote to say they wished Sandusky had sodomized my sons.
What I found even more unsettling was the certainty with which
nearly everyone asserted they would have done more had they been in
Paterno’s shoes. If that were true, every sexual predator would
have been stopped after abusing his first victim and we would have
ushered in heaven on Earth long before now.
Paterno should have done more when graduate assistant Mike
McQueary arrived at his house on a Saturday morning in March 2002,
shaken by what he would later tell a grand jury he had seen the
night before in a shower at the team’s football complex: Sandusky
raping a young boy.
All Paterno did at the time was only what he was obligated to do
– notify his immediate superior, athletic director Tim Curley. He
never followed up. Curley in turn apprised vice president Gary
Schultz and then-university president Graham Spanier. All three
failed to meet even the minimum standard required by their
positions of authority – to notify the police.
That’s why Paterno wasn’t a target of the grand jury’s
investigation. It’s why Curley and Schultz are charged with perjury
as part of an attempted cover-up. And why prosecutors have not
ruled out charges against the ex-president, who along with the
coach was fired by Penn State’s trustees Wednesday night.
But that’s little comfort and even less consolation as it
pertains to Paterno’s real responsibilities. He passed the legal
test, but not the ethical one, and no one inside or outside the
administration wielded more influence. Paterno acknowledged as much
Wednesday in a statement that was carefully crafted to try to let
him keep his job through the end of the season.
”With the benefit of hindsight,” he said, ”I wish I had done
So should we all. Then and now.
My column on Wednesday wasn’t a defense of Paterno but an
argument that he deserved the chance to prove his remorse over the
next few months, in what would have been the final chapter of his
public life. For the lion’s share of his 84 years, Paterno has
piled good deeds atop one another that had nothing to do with his
accomplishments on the field.
He practically built the library that sits several blocks from
the football stadium, donating some $4 million total to Penn State.
Just about every kid who played for the Nittany Lions has talked
about how valuable the lessons learned under Paterno proved later
in life, although more than one has since called the coach’s
silence about Sandusky’s alleged abuse unconscionable.
But it doesn’t erase all the things Paterno has done over the
course of a lifetime. Just the opposite is true. On balance, all
that good should be enough to earn him an opportunity to try and
erase the stain – as nauseating and hurtful as a sin of omission
can ever be – that has obscured everything else about the man.
And for those of you who’ve never done anything wrong, go ahead
and keep throwing stones.
They did him wrong.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at