November 07, 2011
I'm going to try to tread lightly here, both as a moralizer and a messenger of unsavory facts. If you need the full scope of the State of Pennsylvania's case against longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, it's readily available. You can read about his alleged crimes in graphic detail.
The charges speak for themselves: Sandusky, a former Penn State player and 32-year veteran of the Nittany Lion coaching staff from 1969-99, is accused of sexually abusing at least eight underage males over a span of more than a decade, some of them on Penn State's campus, all of them through a charitable program he helped found for at-risk youth. Moral outrage is a given.
Two Penn State officials have already lost their jobs, including athletic director Tim Curley. More casualties are likely to follow. And as depressing as it is to say, it's increasingly inevitable that one of them is going to be Joe Paterno.
Where we're concerned, the relevant details are these. According to the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Sandusky was implicated as a possible sex offender as early as 1998, when university police reportedly opened an investigation following "allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior involving Sandusky and young boys in the football showers." At least two detectives in that case reportedly heard Sandusky admit to showering with a boy on two different occasions, once to the boy's mother and once in an interview with the state's child welfare agency, but the case was closed after the county district attorney (now deceased) declined to prosecute.
Sandusky retired from Paterno's staff a year later at the age of 55, but maintained an office in the Lasch Football Building and had "unlimited access to all football facilities," including the locker room. He also kept a parking pass, a university Internet account and a listing in the faculty directory.
Three years later, in March 2002, a graduate assistant coach (relaying the account to prosecutors years later) said he personally witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in the locker room shower, and reported the incident to his boss: Paterno. Paterno subsequently invited Tim Curley to his home and passed the allegation up the chain. The graduate assistant later repeated what he had seen in a meeting with Curley and Gary Schultz, the university's senior vice president for finance and business, who acted by telling Sandusky he could not bring any Second Mile children into the building. (University president Graham Spanier signed off on the ban, according to the attorney general, "without any further inquiry.") Otherwise, "there is no indication that anyone from the university ever attempted to learn the identity of the child who was sexually assaulted on their campus or made any follow-up effort to obtain more information," and "there was no effective change in Sandusky's status with the school and no limits on his access to the campus."
In 2008, according to USA Today, Sandusky ended his involvement with the charitable program, The Second Mile, amid accusations by another adolescent male. As recently as 2009, he was still running an overnight football camp for children as young as nine on Penn State's campus.
As of last week, Sandusky is facing 25 felony counts of deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, unlawful contact with a minor, endangering the welfare of a child and indecent assault, along with 19 misdemeanors. Altogether, the charges could carry up to 90 years in prison and $160,000 in fines.
Now: It's up to a jury to determine whether there's enough evidence to convict Sandusky of committing the heinous acts he accused of committing, and another jury to determine whether Curley and Schultz fulfilled their legal obligations when informed of the accusations. Legally, all three men have a right to expect to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Legally, prosecutors have determined that Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier fulfilled their obligations under state law.
Ethically, there is no way around the fact that Penn State officials continued to tolerate and to some extent shelter an alleged sex offender despite multiple, credible accusers over the course of more than a decade. They didn't inform the police. They didn't disassociate themselves with Sandusky. They didn't move to keep him off campus. They didn't move to keep him from working with children on a regular basis.
The law is one thing. Legally, there's plausible deniability and reasonable doubt and CYA. Ethically, there are real people. At some point, you have to confront flesh-and-blood humanity. Too many people in Jerry Sandusky's life reached that point, then looked the other way. Faced with repeated opportunities to intervene on behalf of real people who may be victimized by someone they knew to be a potential predator, they chose to do nothing. Tim Curley knew, and did nothing to keep anyone out of harm's way. Gary Schultz knew, and did nothing. The graduate assistant knew, and did nothing when Sandusky continued to show his face around the program. Joe Paterno knew, and did nothing.
Their only response was to talk amongst themselves. The only people they attempted to keep out of harm's were themselves — and, by extension, Jerry Sandusky. CYA.
Now comes the part where I'm supposed to talk about Joe Paterno's legacy as the Greatest Living Coach. Which should be easy: Whether they want to admit it or not, everyone who writes about college football for a living starts to kick around an obit for JoePa's career about this time of year, every year. Somewhere, someone has the thing written, has had it for years, ready to go up with the correct date and record-breaking win total to be filled in. The thing is, I'm not really sure how they're going to be revising it.
The wins will survive, obviously. Six undefeated seasons, two national championships, three Big Ten titles, etc. His philanthropy will survive. They're not going to take his name off the library. His sheer longevity at Penn State — 46 years as a head coach, 62 years altogether — will be in there, even if the Queen of England phase he's occupied over the past few years is dispatched in a line or two. Of the many books I read growing up by and about college coaches, Paterno was the only one I really admired, precisely because of his basic humanity above and beyond winning football games. He's progressive, funny and still wins football games. The debt that college sports owes to the man and the deep respect it has for him will survive in hallowed, Wooden-esque tones, and it will all be true.
Now, though, Paterno's role in covering up heinous allegations against one of his longest-tenured, most trusted assistants will be equally true. And which part of the story comes first, which one is The Truth, and which is the caveat, the footnote, I don't know. This is not Woody Hayes punching Charlie Bauman in a bout of frustrated senility. This is serious criminal behavior in Paterno's program, in Paterno's locker room, left essentially unchecked for years after he was informed.
I don't think there's any question, though, that those carefully honed, carefully refined tributes will be up by the end of 2011. Paterno's deteriorating health and increasingly obvious aloofness from the team have kept his retirement on the front burner for years; this year, he's been reduced to a literal spectator, watching most games from the press box without a headset. He hasn't been on an off-campus recruiting trip since he visited Terrelle Pryor almost four years ago. Even before last week, there was a very good chance that this was his last season in whatever role it is he currently occupies. After what the world has learned in the last 72 hours, how could it not be?
For a man whose chief asset for many years has been simply being who he is, the stain on his reputation must mark the end. To the extent that "Your son could play for Joe Paterno" was still a viable recruiting pitch, it isn't viable anymore. To the extent that his ongoing presence as the head coach was a glorified public relations position, it isn't viable anymore. Fewer fans will be able to find the stomach to idolize him, or revel in his presence on game days, or defend him from smart alecks like me when we make fun of his age and apparent immortality. Fewer still will be willing to go on tolerating a tarnished figurehead as the face of a program that he no longer contributes to in a hands-on football capacity.
And so it seems evident enough that this is the end for Joe Paterno as Penn State's head coach, in possibly the saddest finish in the history of the profession. I don't have any inside information. I'm not calling for his head. I don't expect him to resign tomorrow at his regular Tuesday press conference. In all likelihood, he'll remain on for the final three games of the regular season, announce his pending retirement within a few days of the Nov. 26 finale at Wisconsin and go out on his players' shoulders in a Jan. 1 bowl game, win or lose, all without mentioning the name Jerry Sandusky. That's how it was always going to end, minus the subtext.
It's not what they meant all those years when they said "he's waiting for the right time." Frankly, we're probably many years past the right time. On the heels of the 2005 Big Ten championship and subsequent Orange Bowl win over Florida State would have been a pretty perfect time. Everything about this time, amid a sickening front-page scandal in November 2011, is wrong.
But neither Paterno nor Penn State has the luxury anymore of choosing the sunset he rides into. The sun has set. The great man's time has run out.