Joe Paterno and the Act that Dare Not Speak Its Name
The Penn State scandal has several dimensions beyond the disgusting alleged outrages by former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky. The most newsworthy item to the average person so far has been the termination of football coach Joe Paterno at age 85, who broke the NCAA Division 1 record for most wins in his last game for the Nittany Lions the Saturday before the story broke.
Paterno is accused of not following up on a report he received in 2002 that Sandusky was observedanally raping a ten year old* male in the football team's locker room. Paterno did pass on the information to members of the athletic department but, according to investigators, did not act more aggressively to pursue the matter. Paterno is not listed as a criminal suspect in the case, but his fabled career received the death sentence. Now the outrage over Sandusky's crimes has created additional fallout, contaminating all who were involved. But what was going on in Paterno's mind that caused him not to track down and expose Sandusky?
Back when my boys were young, a single, mid-20s, hale fellow, well-met, dedicated himself to youth sports. He coached city-league and YMCA sports teams and displayed a great interest in kids a father could not replicate while maintaining a career and a family. The young "coach," and the others like him, set an example of involvement perceived as a paragon of parenting.
One Friday afternoon, my son said he had been invited with four or five other kids his age to spend the night with their coach and mentor. The plan was to go bowling and return to the coach's home to watch movies. I said no. My son exploded with anger and hurt feelings. He reeled off four close friends who were going, sputtering with outrage that if his pals could go, why couldn't he? He would be stuck at home while his compatriots were having a great time -- and making friends with an older person who treated them as equals. I stood my ground, but I could not find the words to explain exactly why to my son.
Thinking back, there were reasons beyond my reluctance to label the youth coach a potential pedophile, an opinion I held but could not prove. I was fearful to explain just what sexual predators actually did. My son and I hadn't even discussed the birds and the bees, much less homoerotic acts that were beyond my ability to dwell on even briefly. I did not want to imply that all youth sports coaches preyed on children. And I feared the uncomfortable process involved that would require that I prove my suspicions. I knew the coach's behavior was suspect, and I wanted to protect my son. But that's as far I could go.
But even if I had attempted to explain my fear and stain the reputation of the young coach, my son would not be able to restrain himself from telling everyone the explosive news. I would then be in the position of defending my comments, which in turn would unleash a firestorm drawing in hundreds of people. The coach would sue, demanding proof. The media would naturally become interested, and the accusation would go viral. I would be mobbed by media wanting to know how I knew this about the coach. And if I were wrong, the potential for defamation damages against me would be ruinous. The drama would never die.
Joe Paterno dealt with the same issues, even though graduate assistant Mike McQueary (who since moved up to assistant coach until he was suspended last week) offered an eyewitness report back in 2002. To his credit, Joepa reported the incident to officials in PSU's athletic department. But his termination is reportedly based on his inaction from that point forward. What should he have done to save him from ignominy at the end of one of the greatest careers in American sports? Should he have confronted Sandusky and accused him of serial pederasty? Contacted the athletic director and demanded action? That's easy to say in retrospect but, based on the unmentionable nature of the crimes, a very difficult thing to say out loud.
Here is another example: NBC's Saturday Night Live November 12 program broached the PSU scandal in its "news" segment, but, tellingly, the actual acts allegedly carried out by Sandusky were not mentioned. The anchorman invited the Devil to discuss it and whispered the charges in his pointy ears. Even Lucifer could not believe the depravity -- nor could he say it out loud. I could not mention my concerns to my son, and SNL could not speak the act that dare not mention its name -- to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. It is despicable beyond human description, which may explain why Paterno could not do his duty. It's tough even to say to yourself.
The parallel in the Penn State outrage to the Roman Catholic child molestation scandals has been drawn by the media. As a columnist, I expressed outrage when the allegations surfaced that neither the Vatican nor the Pope issued a public statement on the subject to apologize and to announce that drastic action will be taken. It was obvious to me that delay would make matters much worse -- which it did. For my comments, I was the object of a boycott by activists in the Catholic community that included letters written to my magazine's advertisers expressing outrage that I dared criticize the Church. I wager that many people close to Penn State and Paterno's football dynasty felt the same way as the xenophobic Catholics who attacked me. Both communities saw exposure of their scandals as a blasphemy to be punished with anathema and excommunication.
Perhaps Paterno just couldn't make himself describe Sandusky's crimes, and, like Roman Catholic leaders, could not countenance being the agent that stained a great institution. Now he is paying a high price, as is the Church. But go down a few layers and examine issues particular to universities and their relationship to revenue sports. In big-time college sports, the Athletic Department is usually under direct management control of the chancellor or president. But everyone knows that the sports monolith is primarily funded by boosters. Thus, the university's suzerainty over its operations is on paper only. The supporters of the football and basketball athletic programs pay the lion's share of the coach's salary and compensation; manage academic progress by scholarship athletes; fund stadium improvements; hire large staffs; sell tickets, souvenirs, and concessions; and a myriad of other activities without direct supervision from the academic executive.
Outside money pays for just about everything -- including, in many cases, a large portion of the salary for the athletic director, who actually runs day-to-day operations without necessarily reporting decisions to the academic chief of the school. The results of this arrangement make news constantly, usually concerning the behavior of scholar-athletes, their academic standing, and monies they receive from professional sports agents who insinuate themselves into the programs and often illegally pay athletes to influence their pro ball choices. By default, the entity that observes and reports on the management and behavior of sports programs is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, with the school brought in if they choose to act as the governing body's agent on campus. In other words, sports program are their own fiefdom with no real control by the school, monitored by an outside agency. Perhaps the NCAA needs to enter the picture across the country to investigate and punish sex crimes in sports programs. The school can't, and the athletic programs are unlikely to investigate their own infractions.
At Penn State, and most other colleges, for now, the president of the school plays a ceremonial role in athletics. The popular and highly paid football coach and his minions run the department using booster funds not connected to the ordinary flow of money within the university. They are a power unto themselves, and that is how they dealt with the Sandusky scandal. In their closed society, separate from the university in power and prestige, it is not surprising that Paterno and his courtiers closed the moat and assumed that the problem would either go away or be handled internally -- not able to realize within the sanctity of their own walls the dreadful impact on their own school.
Joepa was king in the Penn State sports castle. Now the walls have come down around him, and the academic barbarians are at the gates, breathing fire -- as they should.