Commentary: Paterno's stubborn loyalty led to his downfall

The Miami HeraldNovember 12, 2011 

Joe Paterno stayed too long. His ethical ideals had become rusty and the paint was peeling on his uncompromising principles. He placed a pail under the leak in the ceiling and looked the other way.

Blinded by his own mythology, the old coach put football’s code of loyalty before the safety of a young boy. He chose to protect an image rather than a 10-year-old who was raped right there in the locker room shower of the Penn State team – a team that Paterno had burnished over the decades into a symbol of manly integrity.

So JoePa had to go. To have him or any other culpable university leaders on the field Saturday with the band blaring and the cheerleaders leaping would have been a grotesque tableau.

The game against Nebraska will still seem out of place. Penn State is at the center of the most sordid sports scandal in history. Former assistant coach and alleged sexual predator Jerry Sandusky was arrested for molesting eight boys over 15 years, in many instances on campus or at the team hotel. No one did anything to stop him, even after they knew of his dangerous behavior.

Another coach who won’t be on the field – because of anonymous death threats – is receivers coach Mike McQueary. But he should be fired, too. How could he possibly be devising touchdown routes for Penn State while somewhere a 19- or 20-year-old young man whose life was scarred by Sandusky must wonder why McQueary didn’t intervene.

McQueary was an eyewitness. On a Friday night in March, 2002, he went into the locker room to retrieve recruiting tapes. He heard a shower running and “rhythmic, slapping sounds,” according to the grand jury report. He looked into the showers and saw a naked boy “with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky.” Both saw McQueary. He “left immediately, distraught.”

McQueary, then a 28-year-old graduate assistant, didn’t try to halt the assault. He didn’t call 911 or an abuse hotline. He went home and called his father. Not until the next day did he tell Paterno and not until the day after that did Paterno tell his athletic director. Not until a week and a half later did McQueary meet with the athletic director and an administrator.

Somehow what happened in the shower got reduced to “horsing around.” As if that wasn’t alarming in and of itself. McQueary and the athletic director had been Penn State quarterbacks so surely the loyalty code was in play. No investigation was launched and Sandusky was told not to bring children on campus, which would imply “just don’t do it under our watch on university property.” No attempt was made to find the boy.

As with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in its sex abuse scandal, the institution was more important than the individual.

The 2002 incident was similar to one in 1998, involving 11-year-old Victim 6. His mother called campus police, who found another victim, B.K. But a detective was told to close the case by his boss, even though they had a statement from Sandusky. Paterno, a control freak like all coaches, and administrators claim they didn’t know about the 1998 police report, written a year before Sandusky retired. In 2000 a janitor saw Sandusky performing oral sex on a boy in the shower and told his supervisor but it wasn’t reported; he feared he’d lose his job.

Many people failed the victims, on many occasions. To read the grand jury report is to ache for the boys, who tried to avoid creepy Coach Jerry and his groping hands. They slid to the far side of the front seat of his car. They stayed apart from him in the showers but he’d say he had the water warmed up, come closer, and then the bear hugs and worse things would commence.

Sandusky, 67, who selected his victims from a charity he founded for disadvantaged boys in 1977, was known as a foster dad and do-gooder. His memoir is entitled “Touched.” Neighbors were shocked, and warning signs were ignored, as they were in South Florida in the ongoing horrific cases of the Barahonas, accused of torturing and beating their adopted daughter to death, and Father Neil Doherty, a serial molester who was transferred from parish to parish. And where was Sandusky’s wife, who fed the boys in her kitchen but had no inkling of the bedtime abuse occurring in her basement?

By Wednesday, Paterno, 84, knew his 46-year career with a record 409 wins was over. He announced he would resign at the end of the season and expressed sorrow that he hadn’t done more. He was issuing a plea and a threat to trustees to say farewell on his own terms. They rejected it. He and the president were fired.

Paterno was urged to retire previously. The team had a bad stretch of losing seasons. He’d encrusted into a figurehead. He was forgetful and frail, even injuring himself while demonstrating an onside kick. But kings don’t retire. As his son Jay once said when asked if his father would leave: “Yeah, if he got hit by a bus.”

Paterno has had an immeasurable impact on Penn State’s evolution, raising and donating millions of dollars for libraries, Beaver Stadium, the Classics department, scholarships, professorships. He loved the students of Happy Valley, and on Wednesday night they rampaged through the streets in anger, sadness and confusion over what JoePa did or didn’t do. He did report an incident to his superiors. But he – most influential leader at PSU -- didn’t call police, didn’t confront his friend from the coaching brotherhood, didn’t risk taint to his “Grand Experiment” of melding sports, academics and morality.

The old coach stubbornly stayed too long, until he and the football-worshippers didn’t see the wall they’d built around the “program.” He became what he preached against – a self-serving hypocrite.

Sandusky spent 46 years as player, coach and coach emeritus at Penn State – in fact he was seen working out in the gym last week – but it wasn’t the university that turned him in. It was a wrestling coach and an assistant principal at a high school where he volunteered. Sandusky got caught with a boy in a weight room and said they were “practicing wrestling moves.” Police were called.

Paterno is an avid reader of Greek tragedies. Fitting, because in the end it wasn’t Jerry Sandusky who brought him down. It was his own hubris.

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