Commentary 17 Nov 2011 06:57 pm
This week’s column:
Until last week, I had never heard of Jerry Sandusky or Joe Paterno or thought very much — if at all — about the football dynasty at Penn State.
It’s not that I don’t like football, but rather that I’ve always been leery of the good old boy mentality that surrounds it, one that often protects athletes and coaches from negative consequences surrounding inappropriate behavior. We’ve all heard the stories of football players who can barely read or write, who cheat their way through college by taking watered-down classes, and who find charges against them magically disappear when somebody in the organization makes a call to authorities to explain how it (”it” being drunken driving or assault) is a simple misunderstanding.
In the wake of the child-rape debacle swirling around Penn State’s storied gridiron program, surely I’m not the only person to educate himself about its principal players — Sandusky, the defensive line coach and alleged rapist who founded a program for needy children from which he could cherry-pick his victims; Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant who testified under oath that he saw Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a campus shower stall in 2002; Paterno, the long-time head coach who knew about McQueary’s allegations against Sandusky and thought he had discharged his duty by telling his superiors; Tim Curley, the university’s athletic director who apparently decided that banning Sandusky from bringing children to the Penn State campus was sufficient punishment; and Gary Schultz, the senior vice president for finance and business, who concurred with Curley.
There are others, of course, including university President Graham Spanier, fired last week along with Paterno, and a custodian who saw Sandusky violating a child in the campus showers in 2000 and who chose to tell a fellow employee and a supervisor, but not the police. By this point, Sandusky was no longer part of the Penn State coaching staff, but was still accorded “emeritus” status, which included his own office, keys to the athletic facilities and the wherewithal to come and go as he pleased.
In each and every case, one can paraphrase the Watergate catchphrase — “What did x know and when did he know it? — with devastating results. In 1998, four years before the incident McQueary witnessed, campus police detectives eavesdropped as a distraught mother got Sandusky to admit that he had showered with her underage son. The result of that investigation? Detective Gerald Schreffler advised Sandusky not to shower with children again, a “solution” that apparently satisfied child welfare services and district attorney Ray Gricar, who declined to press charges.
As early as 1998, Sandusky could have been stopped by university police, who should have taken away his keys even in light of the district attorney’s failure to act. In 2000, Sandusky could have been stopped if the janitor had made a call to the police instead of fearing for his job. In 2002, Sandusky could have been stopped if McQueary Paterno, Curley or Schultz had done the right thing and called off-campus authorities instead of participating in a cover-up.
It’s the good old boy network writ large, with everybody involved happy to hand off culpability to somebody higher up the food chain to protect the good name of Penn State’s football program.
And yet on Saturday, a groundswell of applause accompanied an image of Paterno shown at the Penn State game, and protesters continue to voice their disapproval of his ouster, saying it isn’t fair for his legendary reputation to be forever tarnished by this scandal.
Hogwash. The real tragedy here has nothing to do with a coach’s legacy. Surely, Paterno has lectured, inspired and inveigled his players about the importance of character. “Character,” in this case, would have everything to do with taking all necessary and proper steps to stop a predator within your ranks.
Jesuit priest James Martin, comparing the Penn State scandal to the much larger problem of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church, wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post that we must be careful not to fall under the thrall of “grandiose narcissists,” those who would have us believe that their punishments are much too harsh and severe, even when their failings are heinous.
The real victims in the Penn State tragedy, we must remember, are not the grandiose narcissists who have stepped down or lost their jobs, but the children who continued to be victimized because people in positions of authority put their love of an institution and its football program ahead of their morality, a failing that continues with the sympathetic bleating for poor, innocent Joe Paterno.
If Paterno’s name is forever accompanied by a mental asterisk in people’s minds tying him to this scandal, it’s only what he deserves. As for Sandusky, his actions add a sick, ironic new twist to the title of his 2002 autobiography, “Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story.”