Has coach Paterno gone soft? No, he's playing fair

The storied and revered Penn State football coach Joe Paterno says, "The minute you think you've got it made, disaster is just around the corner."

Paterno has had it made for decades as the prototype college coach who will brook no nonsense from his high-spirited scholar-athletes. He insists that they behave the way he wants them to, go to class the way he wants them to, graduate the way he wants them to (in the most recent figures, football players at Penn State get degrees at an astounding rate of 84 percent), be good people the way he wants them to, and play football the way he wants them to.

Of course it's a dictatorship. But Penn State players have one basic right: If they don't like it, they are perfectly free to leave.

Paterno began coaching as an assistant in State College, Pa., in 1950. He was elevated to head coach in 1966. He has won two national championships and has produced five undefeated seasons. Almost certainly this season he will break Bear Bryant's record of most wins by a major college coach (323).

Incredibly - and sadly - disaster could be just around the corner.

That's because his star quarterback, Rashard Casey, was arrested last spring in his hometown of Hoboken, N.J., for beating up an off-duty policeman. A football player getting in trouble is not news. But Casey's situation has landed atop the conversational heap because Paterno says he plans to take no disciplinarian action while the legal system works its way at glacial speed.

In the meantime, Paterno, guardian of moral virtue in the shadowy college game, is being lambasted as a hypocrite. Talk is rampant that Casey isn't being taken to the woodshed by Paterno like past athletes who went off the rails because he not only is the star QB but there is no high-quality backup.

A popular view is expressed by ESPN.com writer Adrian Wojnarowski: "Under no circumstances should he [Casey] compete for his university with grand jury proceedings threatening to charge him as a felon in September."

This is blatantly unfair. Paterno is a benevolent despot, but when the rubber meets the road, democracy still can rear up and demand adherence.

For openers, is Casey guilty or not? He says he isn't. His lawyer says he isn't. Paterno says he doesn't know. The police charged Casey, but that's a long way from a jury finding him guilty. Whether to believe football players or cops is about a wash, with both having spotty records. Even a grand jury indictment is only a preliminary step.

Let's take the unpopular view: What if Casey is innocent? To dismiss, suspend, or even tongue-lash would be a perfect injustice. Go at it this way: If Rashard Casey were your son, how would you like the situation to be handled?

A popular stock market saying is, "Buy on rumor, sell on news." All Paterno is doing is refusing to buy on rumor.

Paterno has long been viewed by many critics as a kind of goody-goody, ostensibly taking the high road while colleagues crawl along in the weeds under cover of darkness. He is called St. Joe, in both admiration and derision.

The point is, Paterno has invariably ruled with an iron fist and a clear head. His track record is extraordinary. There is absolutely nothing in Joe's history to make anyone suspicious in this case. Frankly, at many universities, the opposite is true. No need to name names, but you know who they are, and so do they.

Now, if Casey walks into Paterno's office and says, "I did it, and it was my fault," there is no question in the minds of people who know St. Joe best that the erstwhile quarterback will instantly become the former quarterback.

This case is instructive because we are a people who are quick to accuse; we are a people who too often say things for which we have no documentation; we are a people who for the most part have little athletic ability and the most athletic thing we have done is jump to a conclusion.

Casey and Paterno deserve our patience. They deserve us zipping our lips unless we know something. They deserve fairness. They deserve being treated as we would like to be treated if we were in their position.

And the thoughtful Paterno should continue precisely on the path he is taking, allowing Casey to maintain full team-member status "until something convinces me I shouldn't." That's fair.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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