When Penn State went wrong
The focus on the Penn State scandal has been almost entirely on the dramatic events of 2002, when graduate assistant Mike McQueary barged in on the rape of "Victim 2." In fact it was decisions in 1998 and 1999 that revealed the university's priorities, and turned what would have been a tragedy for Jerry Sandusky into a tragedy for Joe Paterno.
On July 1, 1999, Sandusky, then fifty-five, announced that he was retiring as defensive coordinator at the end of the season. "It was a decision that shocked Penn State fans, coaches and players alike," wrote the Daily Collegian.
There was at least one coach who was not shocked. Two months earlier, Joe Paterno had told Sandusky that he would not be Paterno's successor.
We can now guess why Joepa gave his defensive coach this piece of bad news.
In May of 1998, two detectives with the State College Police Department listened in on conversations between Sandusky and the mother of "Victim 6," in which the coach admitted that his "private parts" touched her eleven-year-old son when he hugged the boy in the shower. ("I was wrong... I wish I were dead," he said, the subjunctive giving a false ring to his mea culpa.) One of the detectives and an investigator with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare then interviewed Sandusky, who confirmed the victim's account, and submitted a report to DA Ray Gricar.
Gricar, who would disappear six years later, did not file charges. Whether or not they had anything to do with the DA's questionable decision, it's difficult to believe that Paterno and top PSU administrators did not learn about the episode.
Sandusky had already turned down three offers for head coaching jobs, expecting to succeed Paterno. If this possibility were to be foreclosed, it was reasonable to assume the defensive coordinator would accept another offer. This would be the best solution from the point of view of the university. The officials who learned of the investigation clearly recognized the risk Sandusky posed: he might be involved in a similar incident that could not be covered up by the DA. But to fire a successful and popular coach would raise awkward questions. Maybe Sandusky would just move on. They didn't count on his attachment to The Second Mile and its fringe benefits.
So it was in 1998 and 1999 that authorities at Penn State first put the university's reputation above the safety of disadvantaged boys in State College, and, potentially, elsewhere. Joe Paterno -- English major, donor of a chair to the English department, benefactor of the Paterno Library -- knew theoretically that hubris is followed by nemesis. At least seven more boys fell into Sandusky's hands, and the university's reputation, and his own, are in tatters.