Hindsight haunts Joe Paterno in Penn State scandal: 'I wish I had done more'

The Penn State Board of Trustees fired head football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier Wednesday night. Paterno said on Wednesday the university's sex-abuse scandal was one of the 'great sorrows' of his life. The departure of Joe Paterno, a legendary coach, shows how deeply the story will hit Penn State.

Tim Shaffer/REUTERS
Penn State football coach Joe Paterno returns to his residence in State College, Pa., Wednesday. Joe Paterno said on Wednesday he will retire at the end of the 2011 season amid a scandal over allegations a former assistant coach sexually abused boys and Penn State officials covered it up.

[UPDATE: The Associated Press reports that in a massive shakeup, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and school president Graham Spanier were fired effective immediately Wednesday night by the board of trustees amid the growing furor over how the school handled child sex abuse allegations against an assistant coach.]

The child abuse sex scandal at Penn State University is continuing to reverberate.

Penn State’s famed football coach, Joe Paterno, has announced he will retire at the end of the season – his 46th. Mr. Paterno, considered to be one of the nation’s premier football icons, now says he wishes he had done more once he learned that one of his former coaches, Jerry Sandusky, had been observed assaulting a 10-year old boy in the team showers.

There are also reports that the president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, will either resign or be fired shortly.

Even with both men gone, sports experts say Penn State and its reputation have been badly damaged. Before the scandal, Penn State was known as a “clean” athletic program that had high academic standards and did not violate NCAA rules. The university could proudly point to itself as leading research institution.

“This is a stain that will take a long time to get over,” says David Carter, professor of sports business at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “It will have an impact on recruiting, and fundraising.”

The scandal started to unfold after a grand jury indicted Mr. Sandusky, a defensive coach who worked with Paterno for 23 years, on charges of assaulting eight boys over a 15 year period. In addition, the grand jury indicted Athletic Director Tim Curley and another senior official, Gary Schultz, on charges of perjury. Neither Paterno or Mr. Spanier were charged. All of the men are disputing the allegations.

Paterno, announcing his retirement on Wednesday, said, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

In football circles, Paterno is mentioned in the same breath with other legendary coaches – Alabama’s Bear Bryant, Eddie Robinson of Grambling, and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne. He holds the record for the most wins in Division I football. But he has been criticized for not becoming more involved after a graduate student told him he had seen Sandusky and the 10-year-old boy in the locker room shower.

“If it had been immediately reported, at least they could say, 'As soon as we found out about it, we put the health and welfare of the child at the forefront,' ” says Robert Malekoff, chair of the sports studies department at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. “That would have been a positive.”

Mr. Malekoff wonders if the university officials decided that the reputation of the coach and Penn State was more important than the well-being of the underage children.

“It’s always the cover-up that kills you,” he says.

He notes that in 1998, Penn State University police investigated a complaint from a mother that her son was being molested by Sandusky. After what was described in the indictment as a lengthy investigation, the case was dropped.

“But everyone of every importance must have known about it,” says Malekoff. “So, in 2002, when another incident occurred, it just did not come out of nowhere,” he says. “What I am saying is that now there was a pattern.”

He is not the only one who is surprised that Sandusky's alleged activities were not discovered earlier.

“What boggles my mind is that, for the years that Sandusky was at Penn State, weren’t there any discussions among the players about whether the coach was up to something?” wonders Patrick Rishe, an assistant professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis. 

Of course, Penn State is not the only school where there has been a scandal. This year, Ohio State’s Jim Tressel lost his job after it was discovered players were accepting unauthorized gifts. This summer, North Carolina coach Butch Davis was fired after it was discovered there were NCAA rules violations. And, in the past there have been scandals at Southern Methodist University, the University of Miami, and the University of Washington.

“There are scandals all over,” says Mr. Rishe. “But nothing like this scandal.”

Some coaches accept that they are held to high standards. In 2003, in an interview with The Dallas Morning News, University of Texas football coach Mack Brown said, “We’re role models for kids. We get paid a lot of money to be role models for those kids.”

Paterno would almost certainly agree with that statement. Which is what makes the scandal so damaging.

“He is in the class of John Wooden, who transcended the sport and the university and became the face of the region,” says Mr. Carter.

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