Allowing Paterno to coach risky business

Dan Wetzel

Here's the risk for Penn State in allowing Joe Paterno to coach another game, the risk, even, for the Nittany Lions to play another game, even minus its iconic leader.

Is Penn State willing to have the enduring image of this horrific scandal be 110,000 fans in State College cheering for Paterno, cheering for the football program central to the abuse, cheering and supporting something that so many millions across the country find abhorrent?

And does Penn State want to give Paterno that scene even as it has no idea what more could be uncovered about his actions or inactions involving Jerry Sandusky? At least three criminal trials and untold civil lawsuits are to come. The code of silence around Penn State football is about to be smashed into pieces.

Can you risk that nothing else that implicates the coach, or makes the program appear even worse will come out? Are you sure there isn't more dirt, more gut-punch details, even as additional victims continue to come forward.

And if at a later date more becomes public, do you want the pictures to flash back to a mass standing ovation for all Nittany Lion football supposedly represents?

If a picture is worth a 1,000 words then archived television footage is worth millions, far more powerful than any level of good intentions. Perception becomes reality. Image becomes everything. Penn State, on Saturday and beyond, opens itself up to forever be defined by what flashes across a national television broadcast.

This isn't just about what's right and what's wrong. This is about damage control. It's about statements. And, at its heart, it's a debate about location.

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Inside the Penn State bubble, it makes sense to allow Paterno to continue, to honor him, to continue along as planned.

These emotions aren't necessarily wrong. They certainly aren't designed to be insensitive to the victims. In fact, no one is more horrified by what happened than Penn Staters, who had long loved their institution – and their football program – for what it seemed (and actually still does) stand for. In some way, they've all been victimized; like all the moral Catholics who must continually defend their church.

Many Nittany Lions fans want Paterno to finish out the year and to have his sunset moment in Beaver Stadium. It's a way to pay respect for all of the undeniably great things he did during his 46 years as head coach. All the money he raised. All the leadership he provided. All the lives he helped shape.

Inside the bubble they can separate things. To play a game and to cheer the coach doesn't represent a lack of caring. The fans are set to stage a "blue out," with shirts and proceeds to aid the campaign against the sexual assault of children. It's a very nice and appropriate effort.

Outside the bubble, outside the Penn State family, the view is so different though.

The image of people tailgating and drinking and celebrating this soon and this close after such a scandal will make little sense. History isn't big on nuance. Many won't be able to see the shades of motivation. Who didn't cringe when students chanted "Beat Nebraska" this week outside Paterno's home? Beat Nebraska? Really? That's what you're thinking about?

Penn State is more than a football program. For non-sports fans, who far outnumber sports fans it would make the most sense to cancel the rest of the season. It's just a game after all, right?

Penn State has responded dreadfully to this scandal. In 1998, in 2002 and from the outside that is likely to include the day they wave flags and scream and act like nothing happened – even if that isn't the intention from within.

Paterno coaching Saturday is a potentially dreadful symbol for the school. Penn State even playing – no matter how innocent the current team – isn't much better.

And that's just Saturday's home game against Nebraska. How ugly does it get when Paterno, Mike McQueary and all those current players who did nothing wrong, have to handle road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin?

Penn State can't control what's to come. They can't control what opposing fans will chant. What the signs will say. What groups will protest them away from Happy Valley. They simply can't control how they will be judged.

From the best intentions are born the biggest regrets.

[Images: Video: Paterno to retire | Slideshow]

In 2003 Roman Polanski won the Academy Award for Directing. He couldn't attend the Oscars because he had pled guilty to sexual abuse of a minor and later fled the country to avoid sentencing. When he won, many in the audience gave him a standing ovation. The public reaction was nuclear. Many of the Hollywood elite later said it was in praise of his artistic genius and not a commentary on his legal issues.

It didn't matter. The explanation – if you even want to accept it – was lost in the firestorm and the vision of all those actors and directors cheering a child molester remain. To millions of people, it remains a disgusting show of insensitivity and lost ethics.

This is the risk for Penn State. Trying to pull off an appropriate and balanced scene on Saturday is a high-risk proposition. And even then it assures nothing.

Paterno's almost sole defense is that he fulfilled his legal obligations and did nothing more. He has stated that he was told of "something inappropriate involving (Sandusky)" during an "incident in the shower of our locker room facility." He told his athletic director. He never called the cops. He apparently never followed up on how the school's investigation was going.

Inside the bubble his defenders suggest that he didn't have the full story. Outside of it people wonder how the words "inappropriate" and "shower" involving an old man and a young boy weren't enough.

A common ground isn't going to be found anytime soon.

[Support for Paterno: Joe Paterno embraces rallying Penn State students | March in support]

Penn State can double down on Paterno. It can circle the wagons and say that they will allow him to finish his career in the manner that they believe correct. They can say they don't care how others outside their bubble react.

They have that right. And there is always something empowering about a group saying they won't be affected by external opinion.

Once they do it though, the lasting impact and damage could be incredible. The frivolity of a football Saturday, the cheers and chants of a revved-up crowd, all at the conclusion of a week that altered everyone's opinion of a legendary coach and a once tranquil institution won't exist in a vacuum.

That's the risk. That's the decision. And once that die is cast, Penn State will have to live with it, however it turns out, forever.