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Joe Paterno's new legacy: Coach turned his back on helpless boys to protect himself and Sandusky

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Page after page, damning detail after damning detail, direct document after direct document, it all comes crashing down in a confirmation of the worst assumptions once imaginable about Joe Paterno's role in the Jerry Sandusky sexual molestation scandal.

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Joe Paterno's legacy will forever be that of a man who protected a predator.

Paterno acknowledged before passing away in January he should have done more to stop Sandusky, his longtime defensive coordinator and friend. That's too easy and obvious. The things he did do, it turns out, allowed a sexual predator's reign of terror to continue under the protection and power of Nittany Lion football; year after year, victim after victim, long after Sandusky should have been locked up.

"The facts are the facts," said former FBI director Louis Freeh, who led an eight-month investigation into Penn State's role in Sandusky case. "[Joe Paterno] was an integral part of the act to conceal."

There is little left of Paterno's legacy now. Little left of the icon who used his saintly reputation as a hammer of power to control his program and even cause Penn State to reverse course on stopping Sandusky.

No, he isn't the only one blamed. Former president Graham Spanier should join athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz facing criminal charges for his role in this cover up. And it's clear, as the report concludes, that the school's Board of Trustees took a hands-off, see-no-evil approach to overseeing their university. The Freeh report was a carpet bomb of incrimination.

Let them all share the condemnation. Let the three administrators share a cellblock in a Pennsylvania state prison, where other prisoners will identify them as Sandusky's protectors.

No one is going easy on those three. Still, it's Paterno, because of his fame, because of his stature, that is the public focus.

[Related: Freeh Report is a thorough indictment of Penn State ]

Paterno wasn't the head of the university, he had bosses that on a flow chart had more power. That doesn't mean he didn't have enough power to end this. At any point he could've gone directly to authorities and turned Sandusky in on his own. To suggest Paterno was some cowering middle manager (if that would even be an excuse) is absurd.

He's the man who was given the greatest praise, the highest honors, hailed as the grandfather of American sports, only to have failed in the most terrible of ways.

If he was alive today he might be indicted with the rest of them. JoePa in cuffs. That's what he deserved.

"He made the worst mistake of his life," Freeh said.


In January 2011 Paterno testified in front of a grand jury. He was asked about the day in 2001 when Mike McQueary, his former quarterback and at the time graduate assistant, described walking in on Sandusky abusing a boy in the showers of what should've been a closed Penn State football locker room.

Paterno said McQueary told him that "[Sandusky] was fondling, whatever you might call it – I'm not sure what the term would be – a young boy." He later added, "obviously [Sandusky] was doing something with the youngster. It was a sexual nature."

[Audio: Dan Wetzel provides an overview of the Freeh Report]

Paterno was also asked if prior to that moment he knew of any incidents involving Sandusky and inappropriate behavior with children.

"I do not know of anything else that Jerry would be involved in of that nature, no," he testified under oath. "I do not know of it."

Paterno did know. In 1998, according to emails obtained by the Freeh Group, Paterno was told of a police investigation into Sandusky abusing a boy in the showers. In May of 1998, Curley emailed Schultz and specifically asked: "Anything new in this department? Coach is anxious to know where it stands."

Sandusky was investigated but not charged with a crime in 1998, much to the disappointment of the detective assigned to the case. Last month, Sandusky was convicted on three counts of abuse on the boy who would become known as Victim No. 6, part of the 45 convictions that will keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

No one at Penn State confronted Sandusky about the allegations in 1998.

"In short, nothing was done and Sandusky was allowed to continue with impunity," the Freeh Group concluded.

[Related: Alum: The Paterno statue must come down]

In 1999, Sandusky retired and was given a sweetheart retirement package of money, access to the football program and cooperation from the school in running his Second Mile charity for at-risk youth.

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Louis Freeh's report is a scathing indictment of Penn State's administration. (Getty Images)

As the retirement was negotiated, Sandusky wrote up a document titled "Retirement Requests." The fifth item seeks, "Access to training and workout facilities." The Freeh report retrieved a copy of that document from Paterno's files that includes notes on the edges that the group identified as Paterno's handwriting.

Addressing the access to training and workout facilities, Paterno wrote, "Is this for personal use or 2nd Mile kids. No to 2nd Mile kids. Liability problem."

Yet when McQueary showed up at Paterno's door on a Saturday morning less than two years later and described seeing Sandusky abusing a boy in the showers just like 1998, in those same facilities that in 1999 were a "liability problem," Paterno did nothing to stop it.

He passed the word along to Curley, the athletic director who was, at least technically, his superior. According to Paterno's grand jury testimony, he was no longer involved in the case. The Freeh report shows otherwise, concluding that he played the critical role in stopping the school from contacting child protective services.

On Feb. 25, the administrators had decided that "Unless [Sandusky] confesses to having a problem, [Curley] will indicate we need to have DPW review the matter as an independent agency concerned w [sic] child welfare."

Instead, Curley emailed on Feb. 27 that "after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe [Paterno] yesterday" they should instead just talk to Sandusky. The others went along with it, with Spanier callously stating in an email, "the only downside for us is if the message isn't 'heard' and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it. But that can be assessed down the road. The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed."

[Related: The late Joe Paterno penned one final letter to his players]

So why was Sandusky not turned in?

"Based on the evidence, the only known, intervening factor between the decision made on February 25, 2001 by Messrs. Spanier, Curley and Schulz to report the incident to the Department of Public Welfare, and then agreeing not to do so on February 27th, was Mr. Paterno's February 26th conversation with Mr. Curley," the report states.

It gets worse. At no point in 2001 did Paterno or the others try to find the boy Sandusky was seen molesting in that shower. No one asked Sandusky who the boy was, where the boy was. No one went searching.

A "callous and shocking disregard for child victims," Freeh concluded.

That boy needed help. He needed a savior. He needed someone, anyone, to care.

Instead he got the great leaders of Penn State, the great Joe Paterno, who just discarded him like trash, not so different than how Sandusky treated him.


This is line one of Paterno's legacy. This is what has to be recalled.

He knew Sandusky had a history of suspected child abuse, and when a credible additional charge was brought forward, he protected him from professional investigation and let the victims suffer in silence.

There isn't any way around it. At best, Paterno went along with the decision of the other three, all of whom will likely be imprisoned for their actions. At worst, he drove it and didn't care about the kids.

The rest of Paterno's life sits in the shadow of that decision in 2001 and the subsequent days that Sandusky was able to use his stature and Paterno's own famed program to prey on often poor, fatherless and desperate boys.

There is no denying Paterno was a positive force in many lives, a gifted coach and motivator and, until now, a fine image for Penn State. None of that equals his shame.

[Freeh report: Read the investigation's findings in full]

The reason Paterno was able to wield such influence is the outsized value placed on college sports and the coaches who deliver those winning programs. A "pyramid of power," Freeh described it. And anyone pointing to all the players he helped is just repeating the same pathetic concept.

Paterno did help his football players. Those men, however, were heavily recruited, talented and often highly motivated people. If they hadn't gone to Penn State they would've gone to Michigan or Virginia or Notre Dame.

For decades he found a way to take top-line kids and maximize what they could do, usually by motivating them to excel at a sport they already loved. They were subject to mass adulation and had the potential to become millionaires at the professional level.

He wasn't taking illiterate Third World children and getting them to Harvard. Almost every person Paterno positively impacted through football would have fared similarly had Penn State not even fielded a team. They just would have played elsewhere. Bo Schembechler or Lou Holtz or Bobby Bowden would've coached them up in football and life, just like Paterno did.

Conversely, the kids that Jerry Sandusky tricked, molested and damaged wouldn't have lived the same life had Paterno done the right thing. They were attacked, out of nowhere. Without fault. Without provocation. Without the opportunity to create their own destiny.

The lives of these kids were profoundly and forever destroyed because of the actions of Sandusky, Spanier, Schultz, Curley and, yes, Joe Paterno.

There could never be enough victories, enough perfect graduation rates, enough national championships to justify that.

Joe Paterno was a great influence on men who were already likely to live great lives, men who could help him win football games.

He was a failure to those Second Mile boys who had no such talents, no such opportunity, no parade of recruiters looking to offer them scholarships. He turned his back on the very kids that were desperate for the kind of hero that Joe Paterno's former legacy claimed he was all about.

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