Those who know me know that I am a Penn State football fan of the highest order.
I have been following and cheering for Penn State football — and, thus, coach Joe Paterno — ever since my sophomore year in high school back in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, 45 years ago. I had come to admire a man who was both a humanitarian and a philanthropist as well as a coach who ran an impossibly squeaky clean program in an era of impossible scrutiny. JoePa seemed to dance through the minefield of NCAA rules and regulations like a righteous (although never self-righteous) ballerina.
But the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked Nittany Valley (also known as Happy Valley) the past week or so changes everything. It changes how I feel about Penn State, which birthed one of the classic institutional failures of all time trying to cover up, if not altogether ignore, the horror that happened on its campus. It changes how I feel about JoePa himself for not reporting the crime to police when brought to his attention nearly 10 years ago, and for not immediately removing himself from the program once the controversy swirled about him beyond his control.
All this came about when then defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky — a Paterno hire — was indicted for child abuse, allegedly sexually assaulting boys as young as 10 years old, sometimes in athletic shower rooms and training rooms on the campus to which he had access even after he retired from coaching in 1999.
One of those episodes was apparently witnessed accidentally by assistant coach Mike McQueary, who was then a graduate assistant. McQueary reported what he saw to Paterno (a day later), who in turned reported the allegation to athletics director Tim Curley. Paterno thus fulfilled his legal obligation. But since Curley and other higher ups in the Penn State chain of command did not follow through with promised investigations (suggesting a cover-up), the onus to report this crime seems to fall back to Paterno —if for no other reason than a moral obligation.
And that's the rub. This scandal is so horrific that you have to wonder why it took so long to come into the open. And why an institution dedicated to the higher learning of our children opted to place football ahead of what is the right thing to do is appalling.
Penn State is desperately trying to catch up. So the first thing the Board of Trustees did Wednesday night was fire the 84-year-old Paterno. On the surface (and perhaps deeper) this appears to be the correct response, since Paterno, after all, is the head of the program and consequently the lightening rod for all strikes. But his removal may not help take the heavy tarnish off the institution. I feel this issue is so wide-ranging that others eventually will be consumed in the swirling vortex.
Paterno is an old man who recently became the winningest coach in Division I history with 409 victories. He was prepared to cement his hard-won legacy, but this may kill him instead.
It's a sad time, and the irony is overwhelming. The winningest coach in college football history is fired in a place called Happy Valley for a crime he did not commit.
So very sad.