Penn’s Paterno puts ‘Poppy-gate’ into proportion

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

46 years as head coach. 409 wins, more than any other at the highest level of college football. Five undefeated seasons. Two national championships. Joe Paterno will always be remembered as the record-setting coach of Penn State University‘s football team. Sadly, his name will now also be forever linked to the child abuse scandal which led to his summary dismissal last night, bringing an abrupt and undignified end to one of the most storied careers in any sport.

It is a scandal which puts the England football team’s ‘Poppy-gate’ dispute into its proper context. Only yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron put his political weight behind this cause célèbre, launching into bombastic, jingoistic rhetoric in protest against FIFA’s somewhat petty but not unreasonable refusal to allow England’s football team to wear poppies on their shirts in commemoration of Remembrance Sunday.

From the response of some (but not all) sections of the media to FIFA’s minor concession to allow the players to sport poppies on their black armbands, you would think that the European sovereign debt crisis had just been resolved. It will soon be forgotten as a minor ripple, whereas the after-shock of Paterno’s dismissal will be far more permanent and wide-ranging.

The Sandusky cover-up

How has the affectionately named Joe Pa’s coaching career ended in such sudden ignominy? It is more a result of something he didn’t do, rather than something he did.

Last weekend Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant on Paterno’s coaching staff, was arrested and charged with 21 felony counts relating to alleged sexual abuse of eight boys between 1994 and 2009. In March 2002 Paterno received a report from Mike McQueary (now the team’s wide receiver coach), who had seen Sandusky sexually abusing a boy, thought to be ten years old, in a locker-room shower. Sandusky had retired from the university in 1999, but continued to use university facilities to support his work with the Second Mile foundation, a charity for vulnerable children.

Paterno informed Penn State athletic director Tim Curley of the incident, but it was never reported to the police in what appears to have been a cover-up in an attempt to avoid a public scandal. Curley and the university’s senior vice-president Gary Schultz have been charged with failing to report the incident, and are also accused of perjury in front of a grand jury.

Paterno is not directly implicated in the case, but has been accused of failing in his moral responsibility in not pursuing the issue further when Curley chose not to report the incident to the police. Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan stated earlier this week that he had fulfilled his minimum legal obligation in reporting the incident to university authorities but added:

Somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child.

Yesterday afternoon Paterno conveyed his sorrow and announced that he had agreed to retire at the end of the season. He said:

I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case.  I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief.

I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: To serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today.

That’s why I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.

This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life.  With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.

My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination. And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University.

However, the university’s Board of Trustees determined that this action did not go far enough and the board’s vice-chairman John Surma told a press conference last night that Paterno would be sacked with immediate effect, along with university president Graham Spanier. He said:

We thought that because of the difficulties that engulfed our university, and they are grave, that it is necessary to make a change in the leadership to set a course for a new direction.

The fall-out

The decision was clearly the act of a board of trustees determined to excise a poison which threatens to undermine the university’s reputation for sporting excellence and ethics. It was arguably harsh and premature, given that Sandusky’s case has yet to come to trial, but I find it hard to disagree with the decision. The overriding need to re-establish the integrity of the school in the wake of this damaging affair is bigger than any individual’s reputation – even a legend’s.

Certainly the immediate reaction of hundreds of students on campus was one of disbelief and anger. Many spilled out onto the streets chanting “We want Joe back!” and “Hell no, Joe won’t go!” A TV truck was tipped over, although it appears the resultant protest was otherwise largely free of violence.

Although the ultimate responsibility for not referring the case to the relevant legal authorities resided with Tim Curley and others in the administrative hierarchy, one would hope that any right-thinking person, having reported the incident, would raise questions when the university evidently chose to close ranks and keep the scandal in-house. Paterno himself was not directly at fault, but he was complicit in a  near decade-long cover-up. At best it shows moral ambivalence on his part in not pursuing an opportunity to prevent similar assaults from occurring in the future. At worst he willingly participated in a cover-up to protect the school’s reputation at the expense of children.

Paterno had already achieved legendary status on a par with the Miami Dolphins’ Don Shula or Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson, a comparative whippersnapper who passed the 25-year mark at Old Trafford just last week. Year after year, he oversaw one of the most consistent football programmes in the country, and one which – until this week – remained refreshingly clear of the kind of scandals which engulfed other major schools. And success on the field did not come at the expense of achievement in the classroom, with 87% of Paterno’s players completing their college degrees. His place in the College Football Hall of Fame is deserved and undisputed.

At the age of 84, his Nittany Lions had built a 8-1 record this year to rank 12th in the nation, and remain on course for the post-season bowl games. 32 current NFL players, including the Chicago Bears’ Robbie Gould (arguably the best kicker currently in the NFL), are graduates of Paterno’s teams.

None of that really matters any more, however.

In the inevitable furore which will revolve around his dismissal, it is also easy to forget that he is not the innocent victim here. One can only imagine the pain and suffering the (allegedly) abused children and their families have endured during that time. It is they who are the real victims.

Regardless of the outcome of Sandusky’s trial, this is a sad end to a sad tale which will forever taint the career of one of America’s true sporting icons, in which he took one step, but not enough. It certainly qualifies as much more of a scandal than the much-ado-about-not-very-muchness of ‘Poppy-gate’.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

2 Responses to Penn’s Paterno puts ‘Poppy-gate’ into proportion

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