As the flames rise with the noise, all of it threatening to engulf a legend, the old coach remains forever stubborn. Quit? That’s not what Penn State football coach Joe Paterno teaches, not what he knows, not who he is, so he’ll fight until the very end, and here’s what will happen: The winningest coach in the history of college football is about to lose, and he’s about to lose big. His job, his reputation, his desire to finish on his terms, his decades of work, the way he defines himself, his entire legacy — all of it is about to go up in a smoldering bonfire of flames unlike we’ve ever seen in college sports.
A former Paterno assistant coach has been charged by a grand jury with sex crimes against eight boys in 15 years, and there are questions about how much Paterno knew or should have known about one of the eight cases, a 10-year-old allegedly sodomized in one of the team showers. Paterno reported it to his boss after an allegation arrived at his desk. It feels like he did the bare minimum with the clarity of retrospect, especially given the horrific nature of the crime, especially given that his former assistant coach allegedly kept molesting kids after Paterno received the initial accusation.
This all might have stopped at Paterno’s desk nine years ago if he had done more than merely tell his boss and, while a grand jury has cleared Paterno of legal wrongdoing, here is how the breathless news coverage feeding an angered America understandably feels today:
THE ONLY CHOICE
Doesn’t matter if Paterno resigns or is fired or even if he somehow, miraculously, survives the rest of the season because his bosses are the most loyal and supportive people in the world and put more weight in the last 46 years of good work than in the last five days of horror. The only choice now for Paterno, once the noise and flames have climbed this high, once you are surrounded by cameras and questions on your way to Tuesday practice, is to either have the ugliest, unholiest of career punctuations — or somehow make your exit even worse by trying to defend yourself and absolve yourself of responsibility. That, of course, isn’t a choice at all. Nearly 50 years as a pillar of public purity? They do not help him now, don’t buy him much of anything. At this point, we don’t want answers; what we want is blood. And the lumpy old legend might as well be trying to ward off a mob with a plastic fork.
Just apologize and quit? His behavior Tuesday suggested it goes against everything in his nature, against who he is at his principled core, especially if he thinks he did the right thing by merely telling his boss with the information he had. The stubborn, old football coach has always dictated the terms, and he thinks he still gets to dictate them now, at what feels like the beginning of the end.
There was supposed to be a press conference Tuesday. Reporters were told only to ask questions about Nebraska. How ridiculous is that? A child is allegedly sodomized in a team shower, reporters have engulfed your campus, and you want to get back to the regular workweek and talk about Nebraska? The president of the university, who himself may soon be consumed by the noise and the flames, canceled that press conference. The 84-year-old Paterno said he was disappointed by that, the winningest coach in the history of college football at the center of what will remain a no-win for whatever little remains of what used to be his career.
How blame spreads is interesting. There’s soothing in it for us, the outraged. It is why the death penalty exists. Paterno seems to be enduring as much outrage here as the sex offender, as if he’d been molesting the boys himself. It is natural and visceral to crave justice, punishment, fairness, soothing — something, anything, that brings some semblance of sense to the senseless. And that’s right about where blame starts and begins climbing like flames.
How could Paterno not have done more? Our outrage and disgust about what is alleged to have happened at Penn State is consuming, and it happened on his watch, and it appears from afar he should have suspected more than he did. There is so much clarity in retrospect, even if there isn’t in anger, especially when we are now armed with the horrific details from 18 months of grand-jury investigation. That’s not what walked into Paterno’s office that day, an 18-month investigation. What walked into his office was a scared graduate assistant who thought he saw something in the shower involving a man who worked for Paterno for three decades — and no longer worked for Paterno at the time of the allegation.
For whatever it is worth — and it isn’t worth much of anything once the noise and fanned flames have climbed this high — Paterno claims that the details we have now are vastly more clear and absolute than the ones that brought this unholy mess into his office that day.
Doesn’t matter. And probably shouldn’t. He could have done much more, and he didn’t, and he has made his legend in the results business, not the excuses-and-explanations business. The result here is that innocent children were allegedly abused by a man who was allowed to hang around the team even after Paterno first heard of this, and the coach is responsible for whatever happens under him. Paterno is, when it comes to Penn State football, everything from police to Pope, which explains how a horrified graduate assistant — a 28-year-old man, mind you — could witness a 10-year-old being sodomized in a school shower and go to Paterno instead of the cops. The understanding is that Paterno will know to do the right thing, and in this instance he didn’t — or not enough of it — and it doesn’t much matter that even a grand jury has exonerated him of legal wrongdoing after 18 months of investigating this.
It is worth noting here that an allegation is not an arrest, and an arrest is not an indictment, and an indictment is not a conviction. But, as is often the case when a scandal comes to a campus near you, the boss and most famous face is going to be held accountable. The unrelenting noise and pressure in instances like this turns shock/disgust/outrage into blame-spreading that climbs and torches and may soon engulf even a university president who may have been hearing about all of this for the first time at the same time as that grand jury. Everyone craves something that at least feels like justice now, as if there can ever really be such a thing after an innocent boy has allegedly been raped.
One of the most legendary careers in the history of coaching is about to end with some of the worst punctuation we’ve ever seen in sports, and you’ll find the seven syllables to explain it right in Penn State’s alma mater:
May no act of ours bring shame.
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