There is no benefit of the doubt any longer because, well, because there should no longer be any doubt.
Joe Paterno called his failure to do more to stop Jerry Sandusky’s serial child abuse “one of the great sorrows of my life.” When he made that statement last November, there was an exemplary lifetime’s worth of reasons to accept the man at his word, accomplishments piled one atop another that had nothing to do with football and everything to do with the values for which his former players revere Paterno to this day.
Up until Thursday, I believed it still.
JoePa’s flaw seemed to be that in this case he did his job and no more.
Instead, Paterno’s real sin turns out to be how much he had to do – avert his eyes, hold his nose, bite his lip over and over – while his once-trusted assistant and heir apparent continued victimizing kids in plain sight for a decade and more. Paterno’s complicity, his leadership role, really, among the gang of four atop the Penn State administration, leaps off the page time and again in a report prepared for the board of trustees by former FBI director Louis Freeh and released Thursday.
Freeh acknowledged that in instances where investigators couldn’t obtain witnesses or original materials, they looked at all the available evidence, applied their experience and judgment and arrived at “reasonable” conclusions. Some people, beginning with Paterno’s family, have argued with conviction that such a standard sets the bar too low. Sad to say – especially from those of us who pleaded against a rush to judgment – but in a story from which the word “reasonable” has largely been absent, nearly every one of those conclusions rings true.
The most important of those arrives on page 48. It’s the one that puts the lie to so much of what he would say after the scope of the scandal spilled into the public.
Contrary to Paterno’s claims – including his testimony before a grand jury – it becomes clear that he was aware of a 1998 investigation of Sandusky by law-enforcement authorities that failed to result in charges. In an e-mail titled “Joe Paterno,” athletic director Tim Curley wrote the following to Gary Schultz, the university’s vice president of business and finance, and Penn State president Graham Spanier:
“I have touched base with the coach,” Curley informed his colleagues. “Keep us posted. Thanks.”
The next three pages contain several more e-mail requests from Curley for an update: “Coach is anxious to know where it stands,” he wrote.
It takes another 120 pages or so to complete Paterno’s transformation from interested observer to willful, out-of-touch tyrant. That moment, too, is revealed in another of Curley’s e-mails, this one in 2001, after assistant coach Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky and a boy naked in a shower at the football complex and told Paterno at his home the following morning.
The coach listens to the report and did as he was required, eventually notifying his superior. Paterno passed the immediate legal test, but not the ethical one. Worse, he would maintain until his death that his involvement ended there. In truth, it only deepened.
Soon after the incident, Curley, Schultz and Spanier decided to go ahead and report Sandusky to the state Department of Child Welfare, then abruptly abandoned the plan. Curley said in an e-mail that his change of heart came about “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe.”
Paterno could be as persuasive as he wanted whenever he wanted to be. Signs of Paterno’s influence at Penn State well beyond the football program bubble up repeatedly in the rest of the report as well as all over the campus, and just as importantly, anytime you ask those who were around him for any length of time. They talk about learning lessons in accountability that were taught by example instead of slogans scribbled on a blackboard.
Remember both those things for as long the debate over his legacy rages, and that a halo, lowered just a foot or so, becomes a noose. Paterno had vices every bit as outsized as his virtues. He was capable of both great sacrifice and great selfishness, careful to nurture each and every individual who helped him build a great institution and protective, to the point of ruthlessness, about preserving it.
If Thursday’s report succeeded in making him look a whole lot less admirable, the consolation is that it made him seem a whole lot more human.