It is more than a cliché to say you cannot outrun the past. Egregious mistakes are etched in stone, never to be completely brushed aside. But the reason that cliché has been repeated over and over again for an eternity is because it is completely true. Penn State University and Joe Paterno, the legendary coach of its football team, are a tragic example of this.
On Wednesday, Paterno was fired after an astonishing 46 years of coaching Penn State football. His 409 victories are the most all-time, including two national championships. But unfortunately, none of these accomplishments may be what defines Paterno’s tenure.
Earlier this year it was announced that a grand jury had been investigating Jerry Sandusky, a long-time defensive coach under Paterno, for allegedly molesting several young boys in the showers and locker room of the Penn State football team. The details given in testimonies to the grand jury and from other sources are shocking. In 1977 Sandusky created The Second Mile, a foster home/charity dedicated to taking in troubled young boys. Those may sound like noble intentions, but Sandusky allegedly used this foundation as a front to get to young boys. Allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct began in the mid-90s with young men saying Sandusky would take showers with them. After a reported inicident in 2002, Paterno reported Sandusky to his superiors at the school. This case has picked up steam over the last two weeks after two high-ranking Penn State officials, including athletic director Timothy Curley, were accused of perjury for failing to promptly report Sandusky’s criminal behavior to the grand jury, and Sandusky was arrested on nearly 40 counts of child molestation.
Since the perjury charges, we’ve watched Penn State football, a pillar of integrity and fairness for nearly 50 years, go down in flames. Paterno resigned, Curley and school President Graham Spanier are leaving as well. The most shocking thing in this whole fiasco is not just Sandusky’s alleged activities, but the school’s reaction to it, or lack thereof.
Allegations have been made against Sandusky for the better part of two decades, and instead of dealing with the situation and dismissing him immediately, Penn State did nothing. Sandusky retired from coaching in 1999 but is still an emeritus to the school. It is amazing that they did not swiftly cut ties with this monster, but instead kept giving him the benefit of the doubt. Molesting a child is the most heinous of crimes, but sweeping it under the rug and not making an example out of Sandusky is nearly as heinous. As a result, the goodwill Penn State built up over the years has been destroyed, and everyone connected to this scandal will be haunted for the rest of their lives.
As I said, the legacy of Paterno, perhaps the greatest college football coach ever, has been permanently tarnished. Although nobody knows for sure exactly how much Paterno knew about Sandusky’s crimes while he was still coaching, it is unlikely that he was completely in the dark. It is true that Paterno reported Sandusky for the 2002 incident, but with a crime as serious as child molestation, he should have gone to the police. Loyalty and benefit of the doubt can only go so far, and only doing the bare minimum with this situation is inexcusable . When Paterno held his press conference on Wednesday, he said in hindsight, he could’ve done more to keep this disaster from coming to fruition. The use of the phrase “in hindsight” is a major cop-out. Hindsight does not mean anything to the young men whose lives were ruined by Sandusky. It doesn’t mean anything to the perception of your school which will take years and possibly decades to get over. This doesn’t just apply to this scandal, but to every scandal: recognizing inaction does not excuse inaction. Acknowledging something in hindsight is a useless claim, and a slap in the face to the victims.
There has been some debate as to whether it was right to fire Paternao or to allow him to coach the team for the rest of the season. Personally, I think the school was right in removing him immediately. Paterno had the opportunity to save his legacy, by coming forward earlier instead of sitting idly by while the rest of the school’s administration fell around him, but he squandered it. Sandusky’s alleged victims didn’t lose their innocence and any chance of a normal life on their own terms, so Paterno shouldn’t get to leave on his own terms either. He is not a god. He’s just an 84-year-old man who did something terrible by doing nothing at all.