Probably like you, I have had many thoughts and reactions as the scandal at Penn State has unfolded. I have been trying to organize them in my mind in some coherent fashion, but so far have been able to do so.
So here they are, in random order.
First, a caveat. I’m going to ignore my journalistic experience here and not give a lot of background and details on the case. There a couple of reasons for this, No. 1 being that something new seems to be coming out of this every day and in some cases every hour.
No. 2, if you aren’t familiar with the story behind former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged child abuse and the subsequent release of more details involving longtime coach Joe Paterno’s actions and inactions, you probably don’t care to read any further any way.
So here goes my random thoughts:
1. It’s obvious now that Joe Paterno (and others, for that matter) should have done more than simply tell his boss when a grad assistant came in and told him he had seen something going on in the locker room involving Sandusky and a young boy. Even Paterno acknowledges that -- now.
I have heard numerous commentators on both TV and radio state how they would have done things differently. Given the advantage of looking back at the way things have turned out, I have no doubt they would have. Knowing what I know now, I certainly would have called the cops, too.
But looking at it in the context of the time, I have to wonder.
Say someone you know, a coworker you have known for a couple of years, comes in and says he or she has seen someone you have known and trusted for 30 years or more doing something like Sandusky was accused of.
Do you immediately call the police? After all, you haven’t seen it yourself. Or do you talk to the accused first and accept his explanation because this is a person you have known for such a big part of your life? Or maybe you do what Paterno did, which was call his boss.
I’m not saying that makes what Paterno did right. And yeah, when his boss took no action, he (and the grad assistant as well) should have investigated further.
I’m just saying that when you don’t have the benefit of hindsight, you have a slightly different perspective on things and maybe that affects what you would have actually decided to do. There are many things in my life I would like do-overs on.
I’m not defending Paterno here at all, just taking issue with the smugness and self-assurance that some of the critics display when saying that they would have done things much differently. Maybe they would have. I would have hoped I would have. But maybe they wouldn’t have either.
2. Was it right to fire Paterno?
Yes, it was. End of discussion.
3. But Paterno has done such good over the years. Doesn’t he deserve the right to determine how he goes out?
When it comes to on-the-field stuff, sure, I believe he had the right to determine how he went out. I didn’t like the way Bobby Bowden was kind of unceremoniously shown the door at Florida State.
In fact, Paterno apparently did have that right because one of the reports I heard mentioned that after Paterno had a couple of losing seasons recently, he was asked if it wasn’t time for him to step aside, and he said no, that he would pick the time. And he wasn’t forced out, like Bowden was.
The Nittany Lions are 8-1 this year and though some of that was because of a somewhat soft schedule -- the toughest game so far was against Alabama, and they lost that one, and they nearly lost to Temple as well -- it would seem the program was far from a shambles on the field.
But this went far beyond a won-lost record or even routine collegiate scandals involving recruiting or extra benefits like free tattoos (Ohio State), relationships with agents (North Carolina), and nightclub entertainment (Miami).
This wasn’t an NCAA issue. This is a human issue, and Paterno and others in the administration failed tragically when it came to doing the right thing.
So, yeah, Joe had to go, and not necessarily on his terms.
4. About Joe Paterno. Joe had reached iconic status, not just at Penn State but in college football period. He even had a nickname, JoePa, recognize around the country, and the image of being not just a father figure but more a grandfather, or even, considering his age (84), a great-grandfather.
As reports have mentioned, he did a lot more for the university than simply win football games. He raised money for academics and supported non-athletic functions at the university as well. So he did a lot, tons even, of good.
But a couple of comments he has made in the last day or two I think show another side. They reveal that maybe, just maybe, Paterno was a bit more concerned about himself and wasn’t the 100 percent altruistic person his image projected.
One was his resignation statement issued earlier in the day of his firing. He stated he was resigning effective at the end of the season and now the Board of Trustees could move on to “far more important matters.” Far more important matters? Um, Joe, you were one of the important matters the board had to deal with.
By stating the board could now move on, Paterno in effect was trying to protect his own backside. He had to know he was done at that point, or he wouldn’t have resigned in the first place. But here he was still trying to dictate the terms of his leaving.
The other was a comment he made late in the night after the trustees’ press conference. Because of the time, you might have missed it.
As students and others gathered outside his house, Paterno came out for a brief moment around midnight and told the students basically to go back home and get some sleep. And that was about it.
He had to know that with group growing in size around the house, and with the emotions as raw as they were, this was headed for trouble, and it was.
Later, according to reports, students rioted and “overturned a TV news van, toppled street lights, shook stop signs, and threw toilet paper” -- according to the story in the Philadelphia Daily News -- all while yelling profanities and demanding the reinstatement of JoePa.
Yeah, right. That’s a good way to get the board to reconsider.
Frankly, I could see this coming as well. So why didn’t JoePa, the guy who says he loves Penn State so much, say something to the crowd outside his house like, “I appreciate your support and and love you all, but you need to go on home. Rioting isn’t going to help anything and hurts Penn State. And if you hurt Penn State, you’re hurting me. So again, thank you for your support, but we must move on.”
Okay, it might not have done that much good. This was a crowd that apparently wanted blood. But it would have been the right thing for Paterno to do.
Instead, he said and did nothing of consequence. Just as he had done nine years earlier when that young grad assistant told him something bad was going on in the locker room involving one of his longtime friends and a small boy.