Joe Paterno was the epitome of success, both professionally and personally. He coached practically his entire life at Penn State University, produced All-Americans nearly every year and achieved a graduation rate for his football players that led the nation. In addition to that, the Penn State football team was a powerhouse itself, competing for the national championship year after year. Paterno had given much back to the University during his tenure there, including millions of dollars in gifts. Everybody loved and admired Joe Pa for all the things he had done individually and collectively for Penn State and the athletes who gave their all playing football for him.
And then it all changed.
A former player and graduate assistant went public, saying he had seen Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach for the football team and the main reason why the Penn State defense was so dominating year in and year out, taking a shower and being intimate with a teen-age boy and that he had told Coach Paterno about it. When asked, Paterno said he adhered to university policy and reported it to his supervisor, who happened to be the President of Penn State University. The police were never called and, because they weren't, this was the beginning of the end of Joe Paterno's positive legacy at his beloved university.
A sixth grade civics student knows that every citizen is required to contact the police when they see or know of a law being violated but neither he nor the President of the university did that. And because they didn't, many more teenagers were molested by Jerry Sandusky. He was finally brought to trial a few weeks ago and that legal proceeding resulted in him being convicted of multiple counts of inappropriate sexual contact with minors and was sentenced to a lengthy term in prison. He maintains his innocence and his wife says she still loves him.
Coach Paterno fell ill shortly after this tragedy came to light and passed away. Since the Sandusky conviction, Penn State and other universities and corporations have essentially erased his name. His statue was removed from outside the football stadium and in the final and ultimate blow, the NCAA handed down severe penalties for the Penn State football program, including forfeiting all games they had won since 1998, thereby removing Joe Paterno as the winningest coach in Division one history.
If he had of contacted the police when first told about Sandusky's behavior, none of this would have happened and many young boys would have been saved from having to undergo sexual abuse from a father figure. So why didn't he?
He did what he did for the same reasons that many people in positions of power and responsibility act the way they do. His first objective, some say his ONLY objective, was to protect the football program at all costs. He knew the kind of effect a sordid situation like this would have on recruiting and fan support so he did his best to keep it in-house and, because he did, Sandusky was allowed to continue to have complete access to all University facilities, where many of these crimes took place.
We can all debate about whether the NCAA was too harsh in their penalties because in addition to stripping the school of all its football wins since 1998, they also issued a four-year bowl ban, which means that any football player who goes to Penn State this year as a freshman won't ever get to play in a bowl game. They also reduced the number of football scholarships significantly over the next four years which will make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to be competitive on the football field. Some say the athletes are being punished for the coach's mistakes and that's a valid point.
But that's not a new thing in American life.
I grew up, as many of you did, with the admonition from my folks that you're known by the company you keep. There were several kids I liked in high school that I wasn't allowed to associate with either because of their reputation or the reputation of their parents. In other words, it was the classic guilt by association. If they had a bad reputation, you would get one too simply by being seen with them.
That's the same situation we're seeing with Joe Paterno and the athletes that attend Penn State University. Their reputations have been sullied because of their association with him. And after 60 years of excellence at the highest level, that's all been stripped away because when he was confronted with a situation that demanded he do the right thing, he didn't.
And many kids ultimately suffered the inappropriate behavior of Jerry Sandusky because he didn't.