Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cowardly Lions: Penn State Acted Slowly on Sandusky Allegations but Swiftly Made Paterno a Scapegoat

Penn State University officials acted very slowly regarding allegations that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children--so slowly, in fact, that two high ranking Penn State officials have been charged with perjury and with failing to report child abuse. Now that Sandusky faces a 40 count indictment, Penn State has decided to act quickly--not to punish the aforementioned two officials but to zero in on the biggest name tangentially associated with this case and transform him into the scapegoat for the university's sins. Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in major college football history and a respected figure with an exemplary record on and off the field during his 46 year tenure as the face and voice of Penn State Nittany Lions football, was unceremoniously fired on Wednesday night via a hastily arranged phone call. The 84 year old Paterno, whose name scarcely appears in the 23 page Grand Jury report about Sandusky and who was absolved of any wrongdoing--unlike former Penn State Athletic Director Timothy Curley and former Penn State Senior Vice President Gary Schultz--offered to retire at the end of this season (when his contract expires) but rather than allow the legend to bow out gracefully the Board of Trustees shamed and embarrassed a man who has devoted his life not just to the school's football program but also to upgrading the school's academics.

Above and beyond Paterno's numerous on-field accomplishments, Paterno donated and raised tens of millions of dollars for Penn State's library and for the school's various colleges/academic departments. Paterno certainly valued winning but he emphasized doing things the right way; he suspended star players Curtis Enis and Joe Jurevicius for the 1998 Citrus Bowl for infractions that probably would have been ignored at most other big-time college programs. In 2000, Paterno caught some flak for not suspending starting quarterback Rashard Casey, who was charged with assault but later found not guilty. Those two snapshots from Paterno's career demonstrate his character: when he knew that star players had committed wrongdoings he kicked them off of the team even though that could have cost Penn State a big win but when he believed that his player was innocent he stood behind that player despite receiving a lot of very public and very harsh criticism. Jerry Sandusky, Timothy Curley and Gary Schultz have been charged with crimes but the Penn State Board of Trustees would like to turn Paterno into the public face of this scandal, make him the official scapegoat and then run him out of town, presumably carrying the bulk of the filth from this mess on his back.

The press conference announcing Paterno's firing was surreal. John P. Surma, the Board's vice chairman and the designated spokesman for the evening, could not provide one specific reason that Paterno had to be fired immediately. Surma admitted that he and the Board did not have all of the facts of the case and did not know anything beyond what appears in the Grand Jury's report. Surma would neither confirm nor deny that Penn State is paying the legal fees for Curley and Schultz. All Surma could do was mindlessly repeat the mantra that firing Paterno was "in the best interest" of Penn State University. That would certainly be true if, in fact, Paterno had committed a crime or if there were good reason to believe that he had been grossly negligent--but based on the publicly available information, it could be argued that the most that Paterno is guilty of is having too much faith in the ability/willingness of his superiors to properly handle the situation that he had brought to their attention, namely that (according to Paterno's testimony, which the Grand Jury found to be credible) in 2002 Mike McQueary had told Paterno that he saw Sandusky engaging in some kind of "horseplay" in a shower with a 10 year old boy. McQueary now says that he saw Sandusky sodomize the boy but there is no evidence or testimony that he communicated that important detail to Paterno; thus, Paterno immediately passed on what he knew--that McQueary had seen Sandusky conduct himself in a questionable manner--to Curley, who did not pursue the matter in 2002 and who provided testimony that the Grand Jury considered to be false. Why is there not more anger directed at McQueary? If McQueary, then a 28 year old adult, truly witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a boy in a shower why didn't McQueary immediately take physical action to prevent the crime and/or call the police? Surma indicated that no action has been taken to fire McQueary, who is now Penn State's recruiting coordinator/receivers coach. Why is it apparently so important to fire Paterno but not important to fire McQueary?

Much has been made by the media about Paterno's recent statement that he wishes he had done more but, as ESPN's Rece Davis astutely pointed out, the full quote from Paterno is that "in hindsight" Paterno wishes he had done more; Davis noted that there is a big difference between saying that in hindsight one wishes that one had done more and saying that one believes that he did not do enough based on what he knew at the time. I would hope that in hindsight each person associated with this sordid case wishes that he had done more but the Board of Trustees owed it to Paterno to let Paterno clearly state what he knew and when he knew it before just ending his career in such an impersonal and abrupt manner. Paterno wanted to answer questions about the Sandusky scandal but Penn State cancelled Paterno's regularly scheduled Tuesday press conference. Paterno abided by the university's wishes that he not speak publicly but that just seemed to make the situation worse; various media members took the absurd position that Paterno must be fired now because it would supposedly be an untenable situation for Paterno to answer questions about Sandusky for the first time after this Saturday's Nebraska game. Instead of cancelling Paterno's press conference and then firing him for not talking, wouldn't it make more sense to simply let Paterno talk? Unless, of course, the Board of Trustees is more interested in creating a scapegoat than really finding out exactly who was negligent back in 2002.

I don't care if people would be rioting to get Paterno fired or rioting for him to keep his job, the Board of Trustees should make decisions based on facts--not on emotion and not on perceived public relations/crisis management considerations. You don't fire a good man because this may create a favorable soundbite or reduce the media crush. The Board should have met with Paterno face to face and given him an opportunity to explain what he did or did not know and what he did or did not do regarding whatever McQueary told him in 2002. If Paterno could not satisfactorily explain his conduct then it certainly would make sense to fire him--but in the absence of clear evidence of Paterno's guilt or complicity how can the Board justify dismissing him without even giving any cause? In the absence of overwhelming evidence, decades of devoted service should not be obliterated by a brief, impersonal phone call. The sad, perverted irony is that Sandusky will get more of an opportunity to plead his case in court than the Board of Trustees gave Paterno to salvage his good name.

I don't know if Sandusky is guilty of some or all of the heinous charges against him but has everyone forgotten the Duke lacrosse scandal and the Kobe Bryant case? Public opinion vociferously spoke out against the Duke lacrosse players and against Bryant but in both instances the criminal charges were ultimately dropped. Sandusky will get his day in court and it makes sense for Penn State to suspend or fire various officials who face criminal charges and/or clearly did not perform their basic duties but it is unfair and unjust to fire Paterno without ascertaining the basic facts--and Surma stated that the Board has not ascertained those basic facts.

Paterno's "Grand Experiment"--the idea that academic achievement, integrity and high level athletic accomplishment are not mutually exclusive goals at major colleges--has now ended with Penn State humiliating and betraying a man who made so many contributions not just to his football program but to his school. The Penn State Board of Trustees voted unanimously to immediately fire Paterno; I hope that they are damn sure that he is as culpable as everyone will assume him to be in the wake of the disgrace that they have heaped upon him and his good name, because terminating Paterno's career in this abrupt manner has placed a permanent stain on his legacy.

The stark reality is that Paterno is either a basically good man who has been taken down by a Board that has been pressuring him to retire off and on for several years or he is to some degree complicit in horrifying acts of abuse against defenseless children. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I believe that the former is the case--but, regardless of what will come out in the ensuing days, weeks and months, Paterno's "Grand Experiment" has ended ignominiously and its demise may very well be the death knell for any hope of salvaging the integrity of collegiate sports: the whole infrastructure of major collegiate athletics needs to be reconfigured, most likely by reorganizing it as various minor leagues that are partially, if not completely, separated from the academic mission of our nation's universities; the unholy marriage of higher education with big-time sports seems to be irredeemably corrupt on multiple levels, resulting in an endless parade of scandals, criminal charges and broken lives.


Matt said...

You basically said everything I wanted to say, though I suspect it might get a rough reception out there. I particularly agree with the last point.

David Friedman said...


I don't really care what "reception" I get when I write something; I just write the truth as clearly as I am capable of writing it.

Matt said...

On my twitter feed there was a rush to judgement coupled with moral dandyism ( )which I found a bit off-putting.

David Friedman said...


The rush to judgment is sickening. If Paterno definitely knew exactly what was going on and covered things up then I would be the first person writing that he must not only be fired immediately but also put in jail--but a Grand Jury investigated this case and indicted three people from Penn State while exonerating Paterno, so it is wrong for the university to fire him immediately when the Board itself admits that it does not have all of the facts and does not know anything beyond what is contained in the Grand Jury's report. Penn State is trying to turn the Sandusky Scandal into the Paterno Scandal and then "prove" their toughness/moral fiber by summarily dismissing Paterno.