“The best offense is a good defense” is advice that Joe Paterno, former Penn State football coach, may have followed on the football field. A football offense needs to score much less if the defense keeps the opponent off the board. But in the wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal that has lead to the conviction of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and now the release of the Freeh report, commissioned by the university to investigate how such monstrous acts could occur with tacit permission of Penn State officials, Mr. Paterno appears to have only played good defense on the field. In real life, he was perfectly incapable of protecting anyone, including children, his assistant coach Mr. Sandusky, himself, and the university he professed to love.
The report states that, in 1998, Mr. Paterno and others at Penn State were aware that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was under investigation for child sexual assault in the football locker room showers. Did Mr. Paterno act to keep future children safe from harm, even after Mr. Sandusky admitted to showering nude with young boys? No, he did absolutely nothing, except guarantee that Mr. Sandusky would have access to Penn State football facilities even after Mr. Sandusky retired from coaching. In this way, Mr. Paterno failed completely to protect children from the now-convicted child rapist. Mr. Paterno failed to defend children from a monster.
Let’s imagine, however, that we want to defend Mr. Paterno’s actions, especially given that Mr. Sandusky was not charged after that 1998 investigation. Mr. Paterno may have believed that the allegations by the child victim were false. Even if this is true, Mr. Paterno still failed at defense; in this case, he failed to defend Mr. Sandusky from himself. Mr. Paterno knew that Mr. Sandusky was showering nude with boys. This information, combined with allegations, should have been enough for Mr. Paterno to act. He should have told Mr. Sandusky that he was no longer allowed to use the showers and no longer allowed to bring boys to the Penn State campus or events. The reason? Not a belief that the allegations were true, but a desire to make sure no additional allegations could be made and to protect Mr. Sandusky from the bad choices he continued to make. But Mr. Paterno failed again; he failed to protect Mr. Sandusky from himself.
In this failure, Mr. Paterno also failed to protect himself and his legacy. Nothing bad could come from Mr. Paterno acting to keep Mr. Sandusky out of Penn State football facilities. And Mr. Paterno’s reputation would not have been sullied by calling the police after learning that Mike McQueary witnessed Mr. Sandusky raping a boy in the showers. But Mr. Paterno failed to protect himself when he decided against calling the police and even waited to inform his superiors about what Mr. McQueary saw. Reporting a crime as horrible as this would not have sullied Mr. Paterno’s legacy. But failing to report it has now threatened every positive contribution that Mr. Paterno has made to Penn State.
And what about the university itself? Mr. Paterno, through his family foundation, made many contributions to the university’s academic programs. There is a Paterno Library at Penn State. Mr. Paterno had the power to make sure university officials did the right thing regarding Mr. Sandusky. Though there is no forgiving university officials who failed to act, Mr. Paterno was the most powerful person at Penn State. The inaction by university officials can be seen, in part, as a reflection of Mr. Paterno’s own ambivalence toward the incident. Indeed, athletic director Tim Curley stated that the decision to not report the incident Mr. McQueary witnessed to police was made after talking things over with Mr. Paterno. This information alone is enough to condemn Mr. Paterno. Rather than acting in a way that would protect the university, Mr. Paterno again failed to play defense. The consequence is likely to be the loss of tens of millions of dollars, as Penn State makes rightful payments to the victims. This financial loss is a pittance when compared to the damage done to the university’s reputation.
The Freeh report is so condemnatory of the entire university that it is clear Mr. Paterno was not the only guilty party here. Further, Mr. Paterno cannot respond to the report because he is deceased. Additionally, given that I hope none of us ever find ourselves in a similar situation, it is impossible to say how many of us would have acted if we had been in Mr. Paterno’s place. But regardless, Mr. Paterno’s actions were wrong. And no matter what he believed about the 1998 investigation, later events established Mr. Sandusky as a serial child rapist and molester. In light of these facts, Mr. Paterno can be accused of being terrible at orchestrating a solid defense. His actions in the face of evil reveal a coward at heart.