PSU scandal is ultimate failing of system
A kid is drowning, and Joe Paterno is standing there watching.
There they are, the two images of this Penn State scandal, and I can not reconcile them: the iconic and endearing Penn State football coach and the kid allegedly sexually molested by longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
They are both compilations, of course. Paterno is the sum of the many stories I've read of him over the years. The kid is the one face I have given to the eight agonizing stories told in the grand jury report of a little boy hiding scared in the closet, of the alleged sexual abuse of another boy in a Penn State shower, of what it is like to be stalked and groomed and taken advantage of by a sexual predator.
I want JoePa to save the kid. And in lieu of that, I want him to pay — with his job, with his reputation, with his program. Yet I keep hearing JoePalogists saying he did what was required of him.
Let’s dispense with this once and for all.
“Somebody has to question about what (we) would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child,” Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan rightly noted in a press conference Monday.
“I think you have the moral responsibility — anyone. Not whether you're a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call us.”
It is impossibly hard to comprehend the devastation of sexual molestation, the time bomb of shame and guilt and terror given to a child to carry. I once watched an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in which comedian Tyler Perry talked about being molested as a child, and one thing said on that show still haunts me: "A molester kills who his victim could have been."
A kid was being killed, and JoePa either knew and did only what was legally required, or only kind of knew and did not bother himself with delving in any deeper. So of course JoePa needs to be fired, along with then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary and the president who defended them.
Penn State definitely needs to suspend football for a while. There are issues in Happy Valley bigger than how to beat the Cornhuskers this Saturday — like beginning the autopsy on how its football program lost its soul.
How did we let this happen? How did we allow a football program to take precedence over the welfare of children? That is where you start. But once we are done condemning Paterno, we need to turn the magnifying glass on ourselves. He operated under the very parameters we allow college football to exist in nowadays: with unlimited budgets, unchecked power for coaches who are worshipped, and a belief that few things are more important than protecting Saturday’s result.
It's easy to excuse the various recruiting travails and improper benefits accusations because, at least for me, they all seem very capricious. We drum up just enough moral outrage to feel smug unless it is our program. But it is a slippery slope to bigger deceptions when a coach is deified, all justified under protecting the program.
As the Penn State news broke Saturday, I was in Tuscaloosa for LSU-Alabama and it was hard not to imagine how this kind of atmosphere could be established there, or anywhere. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is just as revered and just as unchecked.
Obviously it’s not just Saban. It’s Stoops. It’s Mack. It was Carroll. It was Meyer. It’s every one of those guys we trust to do the right thing, even though doing the right thing can be so damn hard. What happened in Happy Valley is truly the ultimate tragedy of the unchecked, all-powerful college football institution. We have been so busy looking for inexplicable receipts, and questioning the new Range Rover that Recruit X has been driving around in, that we missed the real dangers of worshipping humans.
There is a danger associated with this kind of unchecked power, of worshipping at the throne of the coach, the priest, the politician, of making a person too big to fail, of relying on a single person no matter how good, how moral, how upstanding we believe them to be to do the right thing, even when that thing goes against their self interest.
To me the most damning of all the testimony was the story of Jim Calhoun, the janitor who says he witnessed Sandusky performing oral sex on a young boy in 2000. Another janitor testified Calhoun was hysterical and distraught and wanting to report what had happened.
All of the other janitors feared getting fired if he did.
It speaks to how college football has lost its moral compass that employees of a university would think doing the right thing would get them fired simply because it involved a friend of the program. It says something about Paterno, too.
Paterno is not responsible for Sandusky, merely how he acted upon learning of his alleged crime. What more could he have done, JoePalogists ask? As my dad said when I asked him that very question: “You ask yourself, 'What would I want done if that were my kid?’ Then you do that."
What I want is for McQueary to go running into the shower with fists flying when he witnessed the 10-year-old boy being abused by Sandusky in 2002. I would have, or so I like to think. I guess all of us like to believe that in a moral emergency we would summon the courage to do what is required.
McQueary instead called his dad. And then he left and waited at least 12 hours before calling Paterno.
What would you have told me on that phone call, I asked my dad.
"Get off the damn phone and get in there and stop him," my dad said, and then he paused before adding, "Better to die trying than live with the knowledge you did not.”
Instead, McQueary fled. He relied on JoePa to have the moral courage to do what he could not and then deferred to his willful ignorance, if not possibly his malfeasance.
What did I want from Paterno? I want more than the legal minimum. I want Paterno at Sandusky's door, racing there immediately after being told, with the state police behind him. I want him yelling, "You will never hurt another little boy again, you SOB."
I want him asking for the kid’s name. I want him to find the kid, want him and his wife to make sure the kid gets the counseling needed, to scour Second Mile to find if there is anybody else. I want him involved. I want him fighting to stay in this situation like he has fought to stay on the sidelines. I want him to use the power afforded to the coach of the Nittany Lions for that kid. I want him to be the hero, to be what he has been built into: the last tiny island of moral responsibility in the cesspool of college athletics.
Instead he is in the AD's office, doing his legal obligation and nothing more.
If word had gotten around Penn State that JoePa was on a war path and wanted to know what had gone down in that locker room shower, maybe that janitor would have felt safe enough to come forward. Maybe Victim 1 would not have had Sandusky "perform oral sex on him more than 20 times” when he was in eighth grade in 2008.
What did I want Paterno to do? What he would do if that had been his child in the shower?
That he did not is disgusting.
That we have allowed college football to become so big that he did not think he had to is equally so, and to wash our hands now is to fail our moral emergency.