Three years after Joe Paterno arrived at Penn State to begin his legendary career, my dad arrived there as a freshman to play football. He never really knew JoePa, who coached quarterbacks in his early days, but I was the comparatively rare Ohio boy to become a Penn State football fan and admirer of its longtime coach.
Which isn’t easy right now, as Paterno was fired today amid a metastasizing scandal that claimed the job of Penn State’s president, too. The sexual molestation charges against a former Paterno assistant, Jerry Sandusky; the documented fact that Paterno knew at least a decade ago of his former defensive coordinator’s proclivities; the mounting evidence that the university, up to and including President Graham Spanier, appears to have chosen institutional butt-covering over swift action to ensure Penn State facilities weren’t used as Sandusky’s personal brothel — all of it, and more, offer a lesson that every large institution, university, corporation, whatever, should heed:
Stonewalling, denial and cover-ups always make a bad situation worse (and there are few worse than serial molestation of young children). After an eyewitness in 2002 reported to Paterno seeing Sandusky sodomize a boy in the showers, would it have taken roughly nine years for charges to be filed if Spanier and Paterno had taken a more active posture with the law-enforcement authorities instead of keeping it all in-house? No way.
If, in fact, their reticence was motivated by wanting to protect “the institution” (defined as the football program and the university itself), their actions and mounting evidence of a cover up have made the resulting damage all that much worse. Doesn’t matter if the reasons were to protect Penn State and its image, to protect Paterno and his legacy, to protect “the program” and its recruiting, or to implicitly deny that a longtime friend and trusted colleague could be so irretrievably lost. What about protecting the boys?
Matt Millen, the former Detroit Lions president and star Penn State defensive tackle, had it right Tuesday on ESPN’s SportsCenter: “If we can’t protect our kids, we, as a society, are pathetic.” That it took a decade to charge Sandusky and get him the hell out of there is a searing indictment of Penn State, its president, its legendary football coach, its campus police, the district attorney and so many others.
It’s all so incredibly sad, starting with the victims and their families. The damage to children, to Penn State, to the credibility of its storied image, to the legacy of the winningest coach in college football history could have been mitigated with a more transparent (and unforgiving) response. Some things are simply too heinous to look the other way, and this is one of those things.