Penn State and Paterno, After the Freeh Report
Penn Staters everywhere are reeling. The Freeh report on the Sandusky scandal is out and the world is demonizing Penn State, Paterno, our Nittany Lion football team, and pointing the finger of blame at all of us who bleed blue and white.
As a Penn Stater myself, I can only speak for myself, but I hope that my thoughts and feelings expressed here will resonate with others, as I know we consider ourselves a community.
When I wrote about the breaking scandal in November, I was flamed from people who hadn’t bothered to read my whole post. For those of you who are so angry you just want to yell and scream at the world before you have all of the information, I’m going to share the main point of that post right now. Then, I implore you, to read the rest of this current post in its entirety. After doing so, I will welcome your comments.
Penn State needs to let go of our greatest icon in order to recover from our shared disgrace.
It is a shared disgrace because, of all people, we expected more from our hero, Joe Paterno. Paterno himself would have required more from anyone else. As he said in his statement yesterday, “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.”
We revered Paterno because of his high standards. Paterno taught us all by example to never accept the minimum. To be honorable, you must do what is right even if it is easier to do only what is required. Because of his influence, we now need to judge Paterno by those same high standards of honor, ethics, and morality.
As I said in November, I will say it again now. Paterno did not do enough for the victims. He recognized it. Penn Staters recognize it. He made an egregious error in judgement. Had he acted differently, perhaps some of this heartache could have been spared. Perhaps some of the victims could be reading about these events with the same removed shock and horror that we all are, instead of living through it with first-hand knowledge.
Unfortunately though, there are victims out there whose suffering has nothing to do with Penn State or Joe Paterno. The one thing all of these men have in common is that they were abused and violated by a monster posing as a man, who was so good at hiding who he really was, that even his own wife did not know what was happening in their house.
Shortly after writing my post about this scandal, I was sent a copy of It’s Okay to Tell, a book written by a victim of sexual abuse. It’s a heart-wrenching true story of an 11-year-old girl who was abused by her Nanny, in her own home, at some times while her parents and siblings were present in the same house.
The sad truth is that many of these monstrous child predators out there are experts in the arts of manipulation and deception. They manipulate their victims into wondering if their actions are normal or deserved. They deceive everyone around them by hiding their true nature. The fact that stories like this occur all the time is heart-breaking.
It is too easy to blame everyone nearby for not knowing and not stopping the abuse. Do you think the parents of any child victim sleep well at night, after finding out what was happening to their child? Do you think a single one doesn’t blame themselves for not knowing? Do you think, when it all came out last fall, that Paterno didn’t blame himself for not doing more? His own words, quoted above, show he did.
I do believe that, after the 1998 incident in this Penn State scandal, that Paterno and others in the university did the right thing. Let’s revisit the facts of that incident first, as shared in the Freeh report, backed up with evidence. In May of 1998, the victim’s mother called the police and the first investigation began (Freeh Report, p20).
One month later, the investigation is closed and charges are not brought against Sandusky. That decision was out of the hands of Paterno and everyone else at Penn State. The District Attorney made that call. There was no case.
With the benefit of hindsight, we all know better now. But quell your anger and outrage for just a moment and try to imagine yourself in the same situation. A person you think you know well, have worked closely with for over thirty years, has been investigated and cleared of a heinous crime. You probably chastise him for allowing himself to be so stupid as to get into a situation like that in the first place. In the end, though, you are probably relieved. Relieved for both your coworker and yourself, for not being wrong in your judgement of this person.
We all know better than that now. But at the time, I truly believe that Paterno did not know the gravity of what Sandusky had done. I don’t blame Paterno for any lack of action after the 1998 incident.
Where Paterno did go wrong, was after the 2001 report. It is Paterno’s actions of February 27-28, 2001, as reported on page 24 of the Freeh Report, that I believe to be Paterno’s greatest error in judgement. That is, IF they are true. If Paterno recommended that the administration first talk to Sandusky and offer him professional help instead of going with their original plan to report the charges to the Department of Public Welfare, that action allowed Sandusky access to Penn State’s facilities and worse, to his victims.
The reason I clarify this important action with an “if” is that we still do not have any proof. The Freeh Report did a very good job of finding evidence in the form of emails and going through all it could find to see how something this horrific could happen. However, there are two things that still bother me. Perhaps it’s my cynical nature, or perhaps I’m blinded by blue and white loyalty. It could be a combination of both. Regardless of the reasons, I do see two major issues. First, the Freeh Report was ordered and paid for by the Board of Trustees. This BoT has a long-standing history of animosity with Joe Paterno and the BoT is under fire for their lack of knowledge, lack of transparency, and lack of leadership at the University. Their hope in hiring Judge Freeh, was to find the smoking gun to damn Paterno and save themselves.
Second, nowhere in this entire report (trust me, I’ve read it in its entirety, not just the summary or the timeline) is there anything quoting Paterno about this “recommendation” of February 2001. Nope, nothing. What we have are copies of emails between Curley, Schultz and Spanier where Curley says, “After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesteerday — I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps,” (Freeh Report, p74). Curley says “I am uncomfortable,” not that Joe was uncomfortable. We will never know what words were exchanged. If it was Curley who came up with new plan or if it was Paterno. We just can’t know.
I understand that many who are reading this are now shaking their heads that I’ve “drunk the Kool-Aid” or am blind to the truth. I am not blinded by my love for Penn State any more than I will be blinded by a media frenzy. I am simply stating facts and drawing my own conclusions, much as Judge Freeh did. I just don’t have enough in front of me to conclusively state that this change in recommendation was Paterno’s doing. If so, it is his greatest error in this process. If not, well, he’s one step less involved than many of the others. Either way, the Febrary 2001 decision to speak to Sandusky themselves rather than involve the DPW is where the University administration made a grave mistake.
The Second Mile, made an even larger mistake, however, in categorizing this a “non-incident,” in March of 2001 (Freeh Report, pp24, 78). How an organization tasked with children’s welfare could look the other way is an even greater failure. The Penn State Administration did the very minimum in disallowing Sandusky to bring any Second Mile children to use the campus facilities. (We know from later reports that this was not enforced.) The Second Mile, however, is culpable for continuing to allow Sandusky access to his child victims. These decisions in February and March of 2001 were where adults failed to do what was right and thereby allowed more children to lose their innocence at the hands of this monster.
From that point on, until the scandal broke last fall, I believe everyone who had knowledge of the 2001 incident, but who looked the other way when Sandusky continued to use the university facilities and work with children from the Second Mile, was in the wrong. I also believe this went much higher than Paterno, Curley, Schultz, Spanier and the Board of Trustees. At some point, I hope to see some real investigative reporting done about the connections with Penn State and politics. This is larger than one school, folks. The state, including the Governor’s office, were closely connected with the university and I’d be shocked if there is anything proving that the inaction was contained to just Penn State. That, however, is my own speculation. To say any more than that makes me just as bad as the rest of the national media.
In the end, none of this is good. It is heart-breaking and sobering all around. Too many children were robbed of their innocence and violated to an extent from which they may never recover. Grown men knew what was happening and fear, uncertainty and misplaced loyalty led to inaction. Penn Staters are not the victims. The brave boys who came forward to tell their horrific tale are the only victims.
We will never be able to make up for the hurt and anguish suffered by these boys, now men. We can’t erase their tragedy. No amount of finger pointing or blame will help them, either. It’s important to get down the facts of what happened when so we can make sure it can never happen again. But it also does no good to smear reputations just for the sake of sensationalism.
The number of people who made horrible choices is much too high. I do believe that Paterno, in knowing, could have used his unwanted celebrity status to push for more action or information. However, I also believe that Paterno is the least of many evils in this case. It’s the fact that he was the face of Penn State that so many think he had more control than he did. It’s the fact that he was revered and considered an icon of good that the world wants to see him fall. It’s a better story if a hero falls.
Paterno was not perfect. Far from it. He made mistakes. Some of them so big that his stellar reputation will be forever tarnished. As it should be. Knowing and ignoring what was happening was wrong. He did report it, though. He did follow up, asking for updates on what was happening. It went up the chain, where it should have been handled. I do believe that he should have been more outraged by what had happened and stepped up, out of his usual role to force the issue.
It’s easy, in hindsight, to judge him for that. I tend to agree with comments I’ve seen on other articles and on Facebook from friends of mine who say, “This never would have happened on a mother’s watch.” I think that’s true. I like to hope that’s true. Honestly, though, I can’t know what I would have done in the same situation. There is a chance that, after reporting it, and asking for follow-up, I may have been grateful that it was out of my hands and thankfully, someone else’s responsibility now. As a mother of young boys myself, I really truly hope I would have spoken out and done more, but I’ll never know.
Paterno, though, was not a mother. He was a football coach, a grandfather, a man in his eighties, from many generations removed. I compare Paterno to my own grandfather. Both were stoic, old-school men who grew up in a different time. I used to love to discuss and debate big news stories with my grandfather. I can imagine trying to talk about this scandal with him and getting a gruff, “Och, don’t talk about that,” in response. Their generation didn’t believe in airing dirty laundry. It’s not right and keeping quiet is what allows things like this to continue. But it’s who they were. They were rule followers, who believed that, if they did what they were supposed to do, then others would, too. They were men. Imperfect men who did more good than bad in their lifetimes.
In my mind, Paterno has fallen a few pegs. However, I do still believe that every Penn Stater, whether student, fan, or football player, who has learned something about hard work, playing by the rules, succuss with honor, making an impact, and the importance of character over winning, because of Joe Paterno now shows by the way we live our lives, that he was not a bad man. He had a positive influence over hundreds, no thousands of people in his lifetime. If you wipe out all the good that he did because of this mistake, albeit a big one, then you wipe out the thousands upon thousands of people who were helped by him, too. Children with cancer, kids in Special Olympics, students who made good choices based on what Paterno taught them, and continue to pass those ideals down to others now.
This was a grave mistake. I make no bones about that. But I am still proud to have had Joe Paterno’s influence in my life. I am just so sorry that the boys who became Sandusky’s victims cannot say the same.
** This article was featured in its entirety on the BlogHer Sports page. Check it out over there, and stay a while to read other views on this topic and more. http://www.blogher.com/penn-state-and-paterno-after-freeh-report?wrap=blogher-topics/sports/sports-news&crumb=106924 **