Unhappy Valley

November 12, 2011 | Erich Hawbaker

If Mount Rushmore was in Pennsylvania, Joe Paterno’s face would be on it. For almost 50 years, JoePa has been the mastermind of Penn State football, winning two national championships and just recently breaking the record for most wins ever by a Division 1 coach. But just as the blue and white were celebrating Joe’s 409th victory and looking ahead to the Rose Bowl, tragedy struck. Joe Paterno and four other Penn State employees have been fired, and the story is far from over. This column will be a bit longer than most of my others, and I’m going to assume that you know the basic story of the charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky so I can just skim that and go straight into my analysis and comment. And if you haven’t read the grand jury report (it’s everywhere online now), I suggest you do so before you continue reading.

As I understand it, Joe’s involvement in this came in 2002, when a graduate assistant named Mike McQueary witnessed Jerry Sandusky doing something sexual in the Penn State football complex showers with a young boy. He did not intervene or try to figure out who the boy was, but went back to his office and called his father (apparently a friend of Sandusky’s) to ask what to do. His dad advised him to report it to Joe Paterno, which he did the following day. The account McQueary gave Joe was not very detailed, but Joe still referred it to his superiors, PSU Athletic Director Tim Curley and the Vice President of the University Gary Schultz (also head of the campus police), both of whom then apparently took no further action. A lot of the kneejerk rage against Paterno has centered around the notion that he passed the buck and/or covered this up rather than going to the authorities. But despite their sanctimony, I seriously doubt that too many people in Joe’s situation would have acted very differently.

Jerry Sandusky was Joe Paterno’s assistant coach for 23 years, and was believed by many to be his eventual successor. One would have to assume that they were pretty close friends. Joe did not personally witness anything, and had only a vague description of what McQueary supposedly saw. I’ve had the same best friend for 20 years now, and if someone told me that they’d seen him doing something so bizarre, I’m not sure I would believe it either. I’d discreetly speak to him about it, but I would absolutely not call the police with only secondhand information.

Very little mention by the press has been made of the fact that Gary Schultz, to whom Paterno did report the incident, was the supervisor of the PSU campus police. But even if Joe had contacted the real police, what would he say? “Somebody told me that they saw Jerry Sandusky doing this…” Having not witnessed anything personally, Joe did not have the veracity nor the basis of knowledge to be of assistance in any investigation. He therefore took the matter to the higher-ups at the college, who had the flexibility to follow up in either a formal or informal manner and could handle the potentially delicate situation much more diplomatically than the real police.

I can understand the reluctance to accuse someone of sexual abuse when you never saw it. Such accusations have the power to irreparably impugn a person’s character, even if they are later shown to be unfounded. Just look at the Duke Lacrosse players. The mere dismissal of the charges against those boys wasn’t enough; it took a deep and prolonged expose of the extreme prosecutorial misconduct in that case to convince America that they really were innocent. Most others who are falsely accused are not so lucky.

Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have both been charged with perjury and failure to report abuse, which is a crime under Pennsylvania law. However, Joe Paterno, who is also bound by those same laws, was not charged with any crime. The grand jury found him to be cooperative with the investigation and his account of the events in question to be truthful, unlike the other two. What that tells me is that they did indeed investigate the allegations against Sandusky at some point, found out what was going on, decided to cover it up, and then lied about it later under oath. .

And now, the gloves are coming off.

I first have to express a severe disgust in many of my fellow Penn State fans, who have been so quick to believe the worst about JoePa and call for his head on a silver platter. In all of sports, there is no other man who has been so successful and so highly regarded for his character than Joe Paterno. The guy has been radiating intelligence and class since before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I simply do not and cannot believe that Joseph Vincent Paterno knowingly participated in the covering up child molestation. For so many Pennsylvanians to adore him one day and hate him the next is a disgrace. Is there any other among us who is more deserving of the benefit of the doubt?

But it goes deeper than that. There is a queue within our society of people who bear an absolute hatred for those who do great things and enjoy great success. And unfortunately, many of these individuals find work as journalists, in both the news and sports departments. Having stepped into local politics myself, and having gotten viciously smeared by a local newspaper earlier this year, I can sort of relate to what Joe is going thru. Joe Paterno is a nominal party in the scandal, but since his name is the one that everyone knows, the sensationalizing of the story has placed the biggest target on his back. One thing that really scares me about this case is just how successfully the media was able to redirect the indignation onto Joe Paterno and away from Jerry Sandusky and the others. Think about it; whose name were you hearing over and over again as they reported on this?

Ever since this happened, it seems that nearly all of my 600 Facebook friends have been posting opinions about it. And one of the recurring themes I’ve seen from the other side is that those of us who are sympathizing with JoePa should be ashamed of ourselves for putting football before children’s lives, and for pitying him instead of the “real victims” in this case, who are the boys Jerry Sandusky allegedly molested. I dismiss this notion. There is NOBODY here who doesn’t appreciate how awful this was for those young men. As far as I’m concerned, the lowest pits of Hell are reserved for those who do harm to children, and the punishment for those crimes should be about equal to what murderers get.

However, I don’t see why we can’t have empathy for Sandusky’s victims and Joe too. Firing Joe Paterno or anybody else doesn’t exactly make their lives any better. The best thing that can happen for them now is to keep the cameras and reporters as far away from them as possible so they can have some chance at a normal life after their day in court with Sandusky (audio and video recording is forbidden in courts in PA, thank God). Jerry Sandusky is the guy who really deserves to be dragged thru the mud here. And yet, we’re hearing far more rhetoric about Joe’s “moral failure” than Sandusky’s systematic and habitual child abuse.

And by the way, the one person who hasn’t been fired is Mike McQueary! That’s right, the man who witnessed Sandusky’s deviance with his own two eyes, did nothing to stop it, and waited 24 hours before telling anyone about it. There have actually been some who have suggested that he was too young and immature to really know what to do in that situation. But in 2002, McQueary was 28 years old (same age I am now), and he stands 6’4’’ and weighs about 230 lbs. Had he really wanted to, he would have had no trouble pulling Jerry Sandusky off of that boy in the shower and calling 911, and there might not have been any need for a cover-up. So why isn’t the press screaming for him to face the music because of his “moral failures”, which exponentially outweigh Joe Paterno’s? He’s not the big fish. They already got Joe, so their job is done. You see, contrary to what they want you to believe, the press’s mission is not to do what’s right or what’s fair; it is to do what will sell.

Some point to Joe’s own comments about hindsight being 20/20 and wishing he’d done more and say “See?!!! See?!!! He even admits he’s guilty!!!” I don’t believe that to be a mea culpa. You have to remember Joe Paterno is 84 years old, only a couple months younger than my maternal grandmother. He belongs to the Greatest Generation. Back in his day, things like this just didn’t happen, (and if they did, it was never national news). Joe is a relic of how society once was, when people didn’t have to lock their doors and families ate dinner together every night. And unfortunately, this may have been what led him to miss some warning signs with Sandusky that younger people might not have. Him realizing that and regretting it does not amount to depraved indifference in my opinion.

Finally, we all know how Joe Paterno’s 62-year career ended. On Tuesday, he announced that he would retire at the end of this season, which may or may not have been his plan anyway. But then, just a few hours later, the board of trustees made the announcement that he was fired, effective immediately, and notified him by phone call. They weren’t the least bit ashamed to admit that they were bowing under the pressure of the media, and that they needed to get PSU out of the crosshairs. In other words, Pontius Pilate gave the angry mob what they wanted, and guilt or innocence didn’t figure into it.

I hope you don’t find the Biblical reference blasphemous, because I certainly don’t believe that Joe Paterno is without sin. But I won’t apologize for saying that after his lifetime of good work for the school, the community, and the state, he earned the right to leave with his dignity. The trustees should be ashamed of themselves for their lack of etiquette or a spine.

Immediately when this story broke, the blowhards at ESPN and Sports Illustrated, along with plenty of their brethren in the national news media, all acting like that bloodsucking harpy Nancy Grace, began the drumbeat of PENN STATE MUST FIRE JOE PATERNO NOW. But was it really because they thought he was guilty, or because his firing would be a super juicy story? The answer was the latter for far too many of them, especially when one considers that they all reached that conclusion less than one week after the story broke. And we as a society allowed the press to defer this case from a court of law to the court of public opinion, and to decide for us who is innocent and who is guilty. To me, that is far more morally reprehensible than Paterno not calling the police with only secondhand information. How dare we.

Very few people in this day and age enjoy Paterno’s level and longevity of success and maintain a solid-gold reputation at the same time. No matter what conclusion this case comes to, Penn State and Joe Paterno will never be the same. It’s depressing to think that so much good a man has done in his life can be so quickly and easily forgotten. This story isn’t going away anytime soon, and it will almost certainly get worse before it gets better. All I ask you, the reader, to do is not be premature in your conclusions. Don’t act like the press has. Educate yourself. Form your own opinion. Don’t call for heads to roil until we’re sure just whose heads should be rolling.

And pray for the victims. All of them.