Lessons in Cowardice

Much hay has been made (and rightfully so, I suppose) about the Penn State/Sandusky sex abuse case.  While the allegations against Sandusky are absolutely sickening and he should be punished to the fullest extent possible should he be found guilty, I find the situation surrounding Joe Paterno to be less cut and dried.

First of all, I think everyone out there with an opinion should first read the grand jury report [warning: graphic language].  There are eight victims listed in the report.  Only the account of victim two refers to Paterno having any knowledge, direct or indirect, of Sandusky’s impropriety.  One victim (victim eight) was observed with Sandusky by a janitor but never reported what he saw (nor did the other janitors all of whom were afraid to lose their jobs).  Another account (victim six) was investigated by State College Police and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.  Neither went further in their investigation after Sandusky admitted he had acted inappropriately and would not shower with any children again.  I don’t see how anyone can read the grand jury report and assume Paterno knew what Sandusky was doing.

I hear the objections now, “But Sandusky was bringing boys around the building all the time. He was constantly around these boys at the football complex.”  True.  It seems he was often close to the PSU football program, but that doesn’t mean they knew what Sandusky was up to.  Sandusky had the perfect cover – The Second Mile charity, supposedly devoted to helping troubled young boys.  As founder of that charity, it would seem natural for him to take an interest in the lives of the boys the charity is helping, including giving them opportunities to get up close and personal with the football program at a place like Penn State.  Until 2002 when then-graduate assistant (and now wide receivers coach) Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky molesting victim two, it is entirely plausible that no one would have suspected Sandusky of such deviant behavior, especially after the State College Police Department and the Department of Public Welfare had cleared Sandusky a few years earlier.

Paterno himself stated that “with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”  Hindsight is almost always 20/20.  Perhaps Paterno could have (and should have) followed up on McQueary’s account instead of assuming his superiors would do the right thing and actually do their jobs.  The problem is that this assumption rests on imperfect knowledge of exactly what Paterno knew and when he knew it.  Without that information, it is baseless to assume Paterno was covering anything up or covering for anyone, including Sandusky.  Time will tell on that count and, personally, I’ll reserve judgment on JoePa’s legacy until more information is available (the historian in me knows that the present is never the judge of itself).

Paterno’s firing has been handled terribly from how he was notified to how the Board of Trustees has shown little deference for the victims.  I’m not defending Paterno but I think the Board of Trustees is more concerned with the reputation of their university than with acting with concern for the victims.  A harsh commentary to be sure, but one I find to be quite plausible.  Last night (9 November) the crawl on ESPN read “Joe Schad reports Paterno received envelope with instruction to call a phone number 15 minutes before trustees announced his firing. Paterno called number and was told by board member ‘you are relieved of your duties’.” They had a courier take Paterno an envelope with a number to call.  The Trustees are gutless to not at least send a representative to tell Paterno to his face.

Second, I understand firing Paterno.  The Trustees had little choice in the end.  He should have done more and, because of his position, could have done more.  His lack of leadership in such crucial situation did him in.  And, as Mark Schlabach points out, “Could you imagine the victims’ horror if Paterno — who all but ignored the sickening actions of their alleged predator — had been cheered in his final home game against Nebraska at Beaver Stadium on Saturday? Could you imagine the victims’ horror if Paterno had been carried off on his players’ shoulders after winning the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3?”

The trustees didn’t go far enough though.  While Paterno certainly could and should have used his immense clout to have gotten results in this case, there are others who are being given a pass by the Board of Trustees.  As of the time I am sitting here writing this, assistant coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed victim two being molested by Sandusky, is scheduled to be coaching this Saturday (12 November) and beyond.  How can the Board of Trustees expect the watching public to take them seriously if McQueary is to be allowed to stay on staff after firing Paterno?

Interim coach Tom Bradley, who followed Sandusky as defensive coordinator at Penn State in 1999, has been reserved in what he knew about Sandusky, basically pleading the fifth and trotting out the line “this was taken higher authority that was handling that.”  Who can the Board of Trustees expect the watching public to take them seriously if Bradley, who has had such a close relationship with Paterno for decades and also worked so closely with Sandusky, is going to take the reins as interim coach.

Having any member of the coaching staff that was around especially in 2002 while firing Joe Paterno is a slap in the face to the victims.  AD Curley, VP Schultz and President Spanier should have been fired immediately. (Spanier is supposedly educated as a family counselor!)  As for the the coaching staff, what the Board of Trustees should have done is to have put the entire coaching staff on administrative leave (paid or unpaid I leave to the reader to decide) until they had determined who knew what and when.  As a consequence, the football season would have been lost forfeiting the final games and I would feel for those players, especially the seniors, but this is beyond cheating or paying players or the like.  Of course the trustees would not do that because there is one more home game and a chance to go to the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.  In other words, the money is just too good.  The trustees are trying to wrap a tourniquet around the reputation of their university while preserving the money-making college football season.  At this point, as far as I’m concerned, they’ve lost both.

[Update – 10 November, 3:07 PM] – The Board of Trustees has “asked” interim coach Tom Bradley to keep McQueary off the sidelines in the game against Nebraska (12 November).  No plan to fire McQueary or ask him to resign.  The man was 28 years old when he witnessed first hand Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy (victim two in the grand jury report) and he did nothing about it.  Again, the Board of Trustees is too concerned about football and an upcoming home game with paying fans.

[Update – 10 November, 5:15 PM] – ESPN update on the McQueary situation indicates that the trustees have asked that McQueary not coach from the sidelines “for his own safety”.  His safety?  The Board of Trustees is concerned about his safety, in spite of his own apparent disregard for the well-being of victim two in the grand jury report? This keeps getting even more unbelievable.

[Update – 10 November, 8:52 PM] – ESPN TV reported that McQueary will not be at Saturday’s Penn State/Nebraska game because of concerns for his safety after multiple threats aimed at him.  Again, they are concerned about his safety? The trustees just absolutely do not get it.  The ESPN link in the previous update also points out that a source has said that the Board of Trustees has no intention to fire or ask McQueary to resign.

[Update – 11 November, 2.00 PM] – After following the McQueary angle of this story so much, I feel that I should clarify my point.  Whether or not Paterno and the rest of the coaching staff present in 2002 should be fired or not is debatable.  However, the issue that is most problematic is that Paterno was fired but the other coach (McQueary) known to have direct knowledge was not.  The trustees should have taken a consistent course of action, either leaving all the coaches on staff pending and investigation or firing all of them who had knowledge of the situation.  Instead, they fired only the figurehead Paterno to quell negative public opinion and by doing so, the trustees indicated that their interest in preserving the football season was paramount to anything else going on.

[Update – 11 November, 7.17 PM] According to ESPN, Penn State has put Mike McQueary on administrative leave.  “Asked if McQueary would be fired, [school president] Erickson said ‘There are complexities to that issue that I am not prepared to go into at this point’.” I can’t help but wonder exactly what these “complexities” are.  In any case, this was the right move and should have been the move for any of the coaches who had been on staff in 2002 until the Board of Trustees determined the depth of this rabbit hole.

[Update – 15 November, 10.37 PM] The AP is now reporting that McQueary, in an email to the AP, claims to have intervened in the shower episode of 2002 and stopped Sandusky.  In addition, McQueary claims he went to police with what he saw.  All of this contradicts the grand jury report. The issue now is the question of just who is telling the truth? This is why I think it would have been best to have put the entire staff on administrative leave (or at least those who were on staff in 2002) until they get to the bottom of the situation.  It seems to be betting more and more convoluted as the story continues to grow.  I still suspect the trustees (or at least some of the trustees) knew/know a lot more than they’re letting own.  Time will tell.

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