In a hastily called, somewhat raucous news conference last night, the Penn State University Board of Trustees announced that it had voted unanimously to terminate iconic football coach Joe Paterno. Also dismissed was president Graham Spanier, who shamelessly hid under his desk for nearly a week after formal indictments were handed down by a Pennsylvania grand jury.
In less than a week’s time a storied college football career came to an ugly and humiliating end and the octogenarian icon has no one to blame but himself.
Paterno came under absolutely withering public criticism over his failure to notify law enforcement that there were credible allegations of child sexual abuse regarding his long term defensive coordinator and one-time heir apparent, Jerry Sandusky. Prosecutors in the case have said that Paterno is not a target of their ongoing investigation, meaning that at least for now, they believe he fulfilled his legal obligation under state law to report the allegations to his superiors.
Paterno’s mistake was his failure to fulfill his moral obligation. As the most important figure in the history of a great university and storied football program, the iconic coach had all of the necessary gravitas to make sure that the institution’s handling of an alleged monster’s sexual predation was done right. Instead, he looked the other way while university vice president Gary Shultz and athletic director Tim Curley covered it up.
It was a monumental failure to exercise good moral judgment and do the right thing. As a result, other children likely suffered at the hands of a sicko for years. For that, Coach Paterno deserved to lose his job. He didn’t deserve to coach another game as soon as the facts established that he failed in his moral obligation. Once those facts were established—and they most certainly have been—the Board of Trustees had no choice.
No one will ever convince me that Paterno knowingly turned his back and allowed children to be irreparably harmed for the sole purpose of allowing him to remain at Penn State and exit the stage gracefully. The logical conclusion of that chain of thought is that Joe Paterno doesn’t care about kids and his entire life and legacy belies that. Look at the body of work. Call me naive. Call me foolish. But to these eyes that conclusion doesn’t make any sense.
It’s important to keep one very important fact in mind—Paterno made a mistake. It was a costly one in terms of the toll of human suffering it likely led to, but I choose to believe it was a decision made in grievous error rather than callous indifference or worse, outright malice. Paterno has always been one of the good guys. His football teams embodied his spirit of clean competition, fair play and good sportsmanship. Nittany Lion football persevered through difficult times; celebrated great times; stood on the highest pinnacle in the sport and while they usually did it with class, the program’s reputation took serious dents in its image in the later years (See LivingCrimson’s post for details).
Penn State University is a world class institution, and Penn State football is a top drawer program. Without Paterno, would the university or its athletics program be where it is today? While board vice chairman John Surma is absolutely correct in his assertion that Penn State University is bigger than its athletics program (and one man), Paterno’s influence on the school and college athletics is going to be felt for many generations to come.
It’s Ok to resolve that you will never forgive him for such a colossal failure of judgment. It’s Ok to believe—as I do—that last night’s decision by the Board of Trustees was the right thing to do. In fact, it’s Ok to argue that his dismissal or forced retirement should have come years ago. You’ll get no debate from me. If further investigation and findings of fact show that Paterno also bears legal responsibility for his inactions, then I’ll join you in the metaphorical torch and pitchfork parade. Paterno is neither a victim nor a martyr in this.
But on the field and with his football program, Paterno usually did the right thing and his teams usually did it the right way. Not always, but usually. College football and Penn State football are better for his tenure and his influence and it’s Ok to be Ok with that, Ok?
I am. For now, anyway.