Thinking About the Penn State Scandal

By Bryan Knowles

I keep trying to digest what happened in Penn State. Not what happened to Penn State, mind you – that’s fairly easy to wrap one’s head around. The $60 million fine is probably the most substantive part of the penalties, with the money all going to help programs that prevent child abuse and assist victims – though the petty, vindictive side of me sees that Penn State actually has received a record number of donations and wishes the number was higher. The on-field penalties, while falling short of the dreaded Death Penalty, will really harm Penn State’s chances on the field at least until 2020, and likely for many years after that as they struggle to recover from the loss of scholarships and bowl revenue. Striking Paterno’s wins since 1998 from the record book is a bit of an empty gesture, but I don’t see anyone getting too worked up over that, though it has already caused some missing of the forest for the trees type reactions in places.

There are legitimate discussions to be had on whether or not the NCAA should have stepped in, if they followed procedures properly, and what precedent it sets. We could go on about how the penalties will damage Penn State’s football program, and about whether or not the fans will continue to support the team as it spirals out of relevance on the national scene. We could try to figure out where Silas Redd or Gerald Hodges will end up now that the Penn State players can freely transfer. We could talk about how potentially harmed football revenue could affect the other, less revenue enhancing sports in Penn State’s athletic department. But this is all a sideshow. What the sanctions have done is made this story about football again – and this isn’t a football story. It’s not even, primarily, a story about Joe Paterno or Penn State – though don’t take me wrong here, there definitely needed to be some punishment for the university for letting the football program get out of control to the point where men like Paterno could use so much influence to keep someone like Sandusky out of trouble.

You can’t imagine the same situation arising if Sandusky was, say, a math professor or administrative assistant. It just seems that, sometimes, in the coverage of events, it can be easy to lose track of the actual victims in this case – the ten children we know about, and possibly an untold number of other victims. The sanctions have spawned hundreds of articles talking about the future of Penn State football, as sportswriters – myself included – latch on to a part of this story we’re more comfortable with dealing with. And this is fine – as long as we keep in mind that all this is just fallout; a secondary aspect of the case.

One group of people who don’t seem to have grasped that concept is the Paterno family. I understand – with all the new information coming out describing Paterno’s involvement in the scandal, I’m sure there’s a natural instinct of disbelief. To them, Joe Paterno wasn’t the head coach of Penn State or an important public figure in Pennsylvania, he was a family member, someone who they related to on an entirely different level. You can compare it with Dottie Sandusky’s continued insistence of her husband’s innocence – no one wants to believe someone they’ve spent so much time with and invested so much emotional weight in could do something untoward. There’s nothing wrong with grieving like this – but that’s not what the Paterno family is doing.

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno
October 29, 2011; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno answers questions from the media after the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Illinois 10-7. Photo Courtesy By Rob Christy-US PRESSWIRE.

If they were declining comment, or issuing short statements along the lines of regretting that this is the legacy Paterno left, or that we should take a longer term view or something, you couldn’t take too much exception to that – they have to watch on TV as their father’s statue is torn down; of course they’re having a hard time coping. But their most recent statement goes well beyond that.

"The release of the Freeh report has triggered an avalanche of vitriol, condemnation and posthumous punishment on Joe Paterno. The NCAA has now become the latest party to accept the report as the final word on the Sandusky scandal. The sanctions announced by the NCAA today defame the legacy and contributions of a great coach and educator without any input from our family or those who knew him best,” the statement reads in part. Look at that last sentence again – the sanctions defaming the legacy of Paterno? I think his reluctance to confront a molester and use his massive influence to protect innocents from Sandusky defames his legacy. His urging of the school president and administrators to ignore Sandusky’s acts defames his legacy.

His legacy wasn’t about number of games won or national titles brought to University Park. It was the “Grand Experiment” – the melding of academic standards with athletic excellence. It was about the life of the students beyond the gridiron, and living up to a higher standard. That was what he professed throughout his life – that there were more important things than just succeeding on the field. That legacy has to be viewed laughable in hindsight – he conspired with the administration to prevent his football program – and make no mistake, it was his football program just as much as it was Penn State’s – from getting negative publicity, and in the process, enabled a child molester to continue molesting children, unopposed, on campus. That’s what tarnishes his legacy, not the NCAA taking away wins or Penn State taking down a statue.

Without any input from the family? They have to be kidding. What input would possibly be appropriate? How could they possibly be unbiased enough to view the situation with an impartial eye? It is not, in any way, appropriate for them to have a say in the punishment for what their husband and father participated in. Their reactions from the moment the scandal broke have been ones of total denial and lack of acknowledgement of any of the allegations and findings – which is fine, on a personal level, but in no way should have any impact on the NCAA or Penn State. They’re trying to protect a legacy which was already tainted – it was tainted back in 1998. The fact that we didn’t find out about it until this year doesn’t make it any less tainted back then.

Joe Paterno made choices. They were the wrong ones, quite clearly and obviously. It doesn’t matter if he did all he was legally required to, or if he isn’t the only one to blame, or even if he isn’t the main villain in this case – which, of course, he isn’t. Paterno played a role in the scandal. He played a key role. Had he spoken up in 1998, not only would his precious football program still be totally fine today, not only would he have likely been lauded for his firm stance, proving that there are more important things in life than football, but a number of victims would have been spared the traumatic experience. Paterno made a horrible sin of omission, and that’s what defames Paterno’s legacy.

The Paterno family is not helping this. They are perpetuating the family reputation at this point -- one that views their own reputation and importance as being paramount. They were practically royalty on Penn State’s campus; their sense of entitlement is just unbelievable. If they want to do the best thing they can do to stop digging this hole they’re in, they need to do exactly what Joe Paterno did in 1998 – stay silent.

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