Commentary: I won't forgive Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno is an American icon, winner of more games than any other coach in the history of college football.

And now I can’t look at him without wanting to clench a fist.

Until news of the Penn State sex scandal broke last weekend, Paterno had enjoyed almost uncompromised adulation. For 46 seasons, the frumpy little man wearing thick glasses represented integrity to a wary sports nation searching for Mr. Right.

Hailed as more than a mere tactician, Paterno owned a reputation as a character-builder who didn’t so much coach athletes as lead them to a promised land where lasting integrity matters more than immediate success.

But when faced with a crisis requiring fearless leadership, the character-building coach retreated into a cocoon. On March 2, 2002, Paterno was told that an unthinkable atrocity against a child had occurred in the Penn State locker room – an atrocity allegedly committed by longtime Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky – and instead of demanding accountability, Paterno passed the buck to his athletic director.

According to a grand jury report, Sandusky’s spree of terror lasted 15 years, and yet a man the police believe to be a monster was allowed to keep an office at the team’s athletic facility. As recently as last week, Sandusky, who is accused of sexual contact with young boys, was seen in the football weight room.

Some leadership. Despite having reason to believe his former assistant coach was a sick and dangerous person, Paterno gave Sandusky a key to the building.

I have heard it said that Paterno’s squeaky-clean program earns him the benefit of the doubt. Nonsense. All Paterno’s squeaky-clean program earns him is a chance to stand before reporters and answer a question: How the hell has he been able to sleep at night?

Here’s what I don’t get: When graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno about Sandusky’s brutal encounter with a child in 2002, the coach either believed McQueary was spreading a vicious rumor or that Sandusky was guilty. One or the other.

If Paterno concluded McQueary was lying, the grad assistant should have been thrown out the door. McQueary wasn’t thrown out the door; to the contrary, he was promoted with the job title of wide receivers coach.

Does a rational man promote a grad assistant he suspects is lying? No.

Paterno obviously trusted McQueary’s eyewitness account, and yet he enabled Sandusky the privilege of remaining with the program as an emeritus coach.

Here’s something else I don’t get: Nobody from Penn State – not school president Graham Spanier, not athletic director Tom Curly, not Paterno, nobody – alerted police about the horrifying incident alleged to have taken place in 2002. Nor did anybody from the school attempt to get an update on the victim’s condition.

The victim, it should be noted, was about 10 years old.

And Joe Paterno is supposed to get the benefit of the doubt because his teams produced several scholar-athletes while winning 409 games? Paterno’s statement expressing belated condolences to the victims’ families, released Sunday, was fraught with the most stomach-turning stretch of words I’ve ever read: “The fact that someone we thought we knew might have harmed young people to this extent is deeply troubling. If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers.”

Prayers? Don’t go there, Joe. At least one family should have been in your prayers nine years ago, and your action as a first-responder was to demonstrate astonishing indifference.

Nothing this 84-year-old coach says can ever carry weight again.

Paterno never was renowned as an orator; his ruminations about football always tended to sound like boilerplate bromides.

“You have to perform at a consistently higher level than others. That’s the mark of a true professional,” once said the man whose inaction in the throes of a crisis will define his legacy.

“The will to win is important,” he also said, “but the will to prepare is vital.”

“The name on the back of the jersey means nothing. The name on the front of the jersey means everything.”

Blah, blah, blah and blah.

But there’s one Paterno quote that today ranks as prescient, to the point it’s profound.

“The moment you think you’ve got it made, disaster is just around the corner.”

Joe Paterno had it made on March 2, 2002, the morning he was told about the possibility of a devil under his watch. With disaster looming just around the corner, he chose to avoid the intersection and bask, for nine years, on the sunny side of the street.

Shame on him.

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