Of all the Penn State officials implicated in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, none was better known – or more revered – than legendary head football coach Joe Paterno.
Over the 46 years he coached at Penn State, his teams had an extraordinary record. He appeared in and won more bowl games than any coach in college football history – including the four major bowls (Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar) a dozen times.
Will all that be overshadowed now by a scandal that went on for years, apparently with at least some knowledge by the man that generations of Penn State students affectionately called “JoePa?”
Eight months of investigation and a 267-page report by former FBI director Louis Freeh paint a highly critical picture of Mr. Paterno.
Along with former Penn State president Graham Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz, and suspended athletic director Tim Curley, Paterno “never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest,” Mr. Freeh said Thursday in a statement releasing his report.
Looking at witness statements and other evidence, Freeh said, it is reasonable to conclude that “in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University – Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley – repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large.”
One episode illustrates the point – the one in 2001 when Mike McQueary, at the time a graduate assistant in Penn State’s football program, said he witnessed what looked like Mr. Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the team locker-room shower.
The e-mails between Spanier, Curley, and Schultz at first suggested contacting the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, which investigates suspected child abuse. But a day later, they agreed that a more “humane and a reasonable way to proceed” would be to approach Sandusky with the allegation but not involve state authorities.
Why this crucial change in how to deal with a problem that – in retrospect, at least – continued for years and involved more boys?
Paterno did not use e-mail, but as revealed in the exchanges among university officials, his involvement in protecting his close friend and associate is strongly implied.
"After Mr. Curley consulted with Mr. Paterno,” the Freeh investigation found, “they changed the plan and decided not to make a report to the authorities.”
When the scandal came to light last fall, Spanier stepped down and Paterno was fired. Two months later, Paterno (who was in his 80s) died of problems related to an illness that his family had announced some time earlier.
Since then, the Paterno family has become public in attempting to shape Joe Paterno’s image and legacy. The essence of their position is that Paterno, along with many other people at Penn State, was duped by a manipulative pedophile who sexually abused boys for years.
In a statement Tuesday, the Paterno family said: “Joe Paterno did not cover up for Jerry Sandusky. Joe Paterno did not know that Jerry Sandusky was a pedophile. Joe Paterno did not act in any way to prevent a proper investigation of Jerry Sandusky. To claim otherwise is a distortion of the truth.”
“As the people who worked closely with Joe know, he was tough, aggressive, opinionated and demanding. He was also highly principled, uncompromisingly ethical, dedicated to his job at Penn State and committed to excellence,” the Paterno family stated. “When the Sandusky case exploded last fall, Joe's first instincts were to tell everything he knew. He assumed the University would want to hear from him, but he was never given the chance to present his case.”
For many Paterno critics, the question is not what he did when the scandal “exploded” but what he failed to do years earlier when hints and allegations of Sandusky’s deviant behavior began emerging among those who knew him.
With release of the Freeh investigative report Thursday, reaction has been wide and varied.
Nike has decided to change the name of the Joe Paterno Child Development Center, a child-care facility at the company's headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.
One online poll asks whether Paterno’s bronze statue should be removed from the Penn State campus.
“Everything we thought we knew about Paterno must now be measured against his sad, unthinkable, unpardonable failure to stop Sandusky from hurting more children,” wrote sports columnist John Gonzalez on NBC’s CSNPhilly.com. “What we know now is that Paterno was very much part of a conspiracy to protect the university and the football program against ‘bad publicity.’ ”
For some, the unthinkable about a football icon now must be considered.
“A year ago, would anyone have ever, ever, ever imagined Paterno even mentioned in a report like this – let alone a key enabler?” asks USA Today sports columnist Mike Lopresti. “Look what can happen – what horrible road can be traveled – when the spoils of winning overwhelm the judgment and better nature of those in charge.”
At the time of Paterno’s passing – before Sandusky’s conviction last month on 45 charges of child sex abuse involving 10 boys over 15 years – Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) said of the man he described as “the winningest coach in major college football” that “his place in our state's history is secure."
Paterno’s place in history may be secure. It’s just not what generations of football fans thought it would be.