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Penn St. Scandal: The End of the Beginning -- Joe Paterno is Unemployed at 84

Joe Paterno during better times.
Joe Paterno during better times.

We interrupt this University of Kentucky Wildcats blog for special commentary.  We regret the necessity, and promise to get you back to your regularly scheduled commentary soonest.

I intend for this to be my last word (okay, bunch of words) on this matter until all the facts come to light. I have reserved comment until I had time to read the grand jury report and allowed Penn St. to act on the matter.  So that brings us to now, where Penn St. has dismissed legendary football coach Joe Paterno, among others.  I am sure there will be more actions to follow, but my comments will be directed at the Paterno firing, as it is a matter of great moment in sports history.

I won't recite the career of Coach Paterno, you can find the relevant facts here on Wikipedia.  Suffice it to say that he is one of the greatest college football coaches in the history of the game, and has been the coach at Penn St. as long as I can remember.  I was only six years old when Paterno was elevated from assistant to head coach at State College in Pennsylvania, and I have seen 54 summers since I was thrust into this world, breech-backward and bawling.

During that 48-year period, we have seen the world change in unimaginable ways, from the first computers, to men on the moon, to the fall of the Soviet Union, to cell phones, 9/11, and the Internet.  Through all this, there has been at least one constant - JoePa at the reigns of the Nittany Lions.

I write today not to praise Paterno, but to lament his necessary passing.  What transpired at Penn St., the sexual abuse of minor children by former assistant coach Gerald Sandusky, was perhaps the worst crime that can be perpetrated in American society.  Yes, murder and possibly other crimes are objectively worse, but the scandalous taint of child sex abuse, particularly between men and young boys, produces such a visceral revulsion in the modern human breast that it forces otherwise rational people to abandon reason for madness. 

It is so strong that people will often demand that anyone associated with the act in any capacity who did not do everything, including crawling naked over a mile of broken glass, to bring it to justice should be incarcerated, preferably for life.  This is an understandable response to a horrible act of violence and debauchery which no civilized society would tolerate in any aspect.

The facts of the case, according to the grand jury report (warning-graphic descriptions of sex acts) as it applies to Paterno, are these:  A student assistant witnessed an act of sodomy between a minor boy and Sandusky in the Penn St. locker room.  He reported the incident to coach Paterno, according to his testimony, in all necessary graphic detail on a Saturday morning.  On Sunday, Paterno reported the incident to his immediate superior, Athletics Director Tim Curley, and reported that there was a sexual act involved, but apparently did not describe the sodomy, instead referring to the crime as something of a "sexual nature," according to the grand jury report.

There was one more meeting on the matter where Paterno was present, including Curley and Senior Vice President for Business and Finance, Gary Schultz, where Paterno again described the incident, calling it "disturbing" and "inappropriate," according to Schultz.  That was surely the Mount Everest of understatements, but given that Schultz is charged with perjury due to his attempt to minimize the extent of the crime, questionable in its veracity.  This is pretty much the end of Paterno's involvement.

So why, you might ask, is Paterno fired in shame?  He did exactly what he was legally required to do -- reported the incident timely and in sufficient detail to his superiors, presumably including the name of the witness so they could get his much more detailed testimony.  Paterno discharged his legal responsibility for the matter at that point, and absent some other revelation, is in no legal jeopardy at all.

The reason Paterno is now the ex-head coach of Penn St. is because even though he discharged his legal responsibility, he completely abrogated his moral and ethical responsibility to pursue the matter and do all he could to ensure Sandusky never again abused children.  People in Paterno's position are not just head coaches, although that's what they get paid for.  They are role models to many young and even older people, pillars of their community.  That is the stature conferred upon people like Paterno, even if unwanted and unasked for.  It comes with the territory, and rejecting it is simply not an option, and failing to live up to that honorary status is very often a career-ender.

Paterno is deservedly fired because he failed in his ethical duty to be brave, and to stand up for the innocent victims of a depraved abuser.  He tried to transfer his responsibility to lesser men, and even when their failure was obvious, did not, for whatever reason, take that responsibility back and act on it.  He failed, as people often do, to stand up for the oppressed when the oppressors are our friends, business associates, and institutions. 

Joe Paterno did not do what he knew to be right because his friends, school, and the program he loved would have been tainted by it, and was happy to leave the matter to others rather than seeing that it was carried through to the end.  He did what many of us do in such situations -- became an ostrich.  Now, he is being served up for dinner by a school that has no such compunctions, offering him up as a sacrifice to the self-righteous media in hopes it will save the university from further evisceration.  It's every man, woman, and Athletics Director for himself in the Penn St. administration right now, and even JoePa's legend never could have saved him from such a scandal as this.

My deepest sympathy is reserved for the victims.  Sadly, it will not be enough.  They will be forced to live through this nightmare in unending, graphic detail in at least three and possibly more trials.  The federal government is now said to be interested, and you have to wonder if congressional hearings, where politicians are no doubt licking their chops to show off their moral indignation for the cameras, can be far behind.  Perhaps seeing their abuser and those who enabled him to continue his abuse imprisoned will offer some form of solace to the victims of this tragedy.  For them, as well as the rest of us, it will have to suffice.

But my sympathy also extends to the students and innocent staff of Penn St. University, and the football program, once a shining light of propriety by NCAA standards.  I don't support or agree with the riotous actions by some of the students in Happy Valley after Paterno's firing was made public, but they are a tiny minority.  I hope all Penn St. fans will come to their senses and realize that Paterno's firing was just, and when heroes act in a cowardly manner, they cannot continue to be heroes. 

A brave Paterno might have scandalized his university, but he could have saved other children from being savaged at Sandusky's hand.  Loving an institution more than the protection of the innocent is simply not an emotion worthy of anyone, especially a legendary coach like Paterno.

We now return to our regularly scheduled blogging about the Kentucky Wildcats.