Finally, a good decision was made in Happy Valley: football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees Wednesday night. The board finally recognized that seeing Paterno, who earlier Wednesday said he would retire after the season, being cheered Saturday during a game against Nebraska would cap a week of tragedy with absurdity.
Much as many want and need to hear from him, Paterno doesn’t get the gravity of this week. If he did, he wouldn’t have dreamed of subjecting his team and university to the spectacle of his presence at a game Saturday. Yes, it’s well understood that he is charged with no crime, and the charges against his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, are just charges, and much remains to be learned and blah, blah, blah.
This is not about the legal aspiration of due process, or its denial. It’s about Paterno’s longtime motto: “Success With Honor.”
The secret of Sandusky, apparently long-known by more than a few around the Penn State program, was kept by more than Paterno since 1998, according to the charging papers. And yet it took until 2011 before the depravity came to light, and took until late Wednesday before the board voted unanimously to do the right thing.
More than illegal, such a conspiracy is profoundly dishonorable. More than Paterno, it is a condemnation of the individuals with specific knowledge as well as the value system of big-time college sports that permitted the conspiracy to start, fester and infect more than Sandusky’s alleged victims.
In a statement earlier Wednesday, Paterno seemed to acknowledge Sandusky’s crimes, as well as his own culpability.
“This is a tragedy,” the statement read. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more. My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination.”
The commitment Paterno had was to “success with honor,” and he broke that commitment years ago. The commitment to the players and game Saturday has been rendered moot.
Whether due to age, hubris or the tottering empire around him seeking to save itself — or the idiot cohort of students who Tuesday night rambled through the streets of State College, PA., cheering the coach — Paterno did not understand what was happening.
His statement went on: “At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.”
Really, Joe? There was nothing more important the board could have done than securing your immediate dismissal. It’s way, way too late to make things easy on the board. In fact, Joe, you made it more difficult by continuing the appearance of obliviousness to the consequences of your inactions regarding Sandusky’s alleged actions, and the power of your empire to still dictate outcomes.
The point here is not to pile on a man in his dotage but to understand the power configuation at Penn State (and probably most other big-time football colleges) that permitted it. When Paterno told the grand jury that he reported to those above him the episode of sodomy between Sandusky and a boy in the shower, then did nothing further, it spoke to the mis-shapen nature of the college sports system — there is no one above Paterno at Penn State.
There are people with bigger titles, but none with more power. The issue was not necessarily that Paterno abused his power, as much as everyone around him benefited from it, including the non-athletic interests of the university. So it was in the interests of everyone — with the exception of the victimized boys and their families — to preserve the status quo.
In that way, college sports are no different that any of the other corrupt institutions with which we’ve become familiar — Wall Street investment houses, Washington Mutual, Enron, Pentagon, etc. — where moral conscience comes in second.
The difference is that this is not national security or financial crime. It is a heinous set of acts in our university system where Western civilization aspires to flourish, not flounder. That’s not to say perfection and propriety is expectable, only that when something so vile occurs that it violates every Western law, custom and sensibility, outrage should be at its most intense in the place where young people are the most eager and vulnerable.
Yet for 13 years, some Penn State people and some in the community knew that a threat walked protected among them, and found a way to ignore the horror — all for the prestige, profile and money of big-time college sports.
Some of us who make a part of our livings by being engaged with the college-sports machine can properly be called enablers. So can the consumers whose appetites for the delights of big-time college sports are ravenous, and thus lucrative to the schools and media partners.
So no, it’s just not Joe Paterno. But no one in the history of big-time college sports so regaled has become so suddenly disparaged, albeit for inaction rather than action. The consequences of this story will reverberate for years, and perhaps be the long-awaited catalyst to genuine college-sports reform. Paterno and Penn State needed to start the turn now.
Reform won’t happen until figures such as Paterno and schools such as Penn State are shocked into grasping the gravity of the depravity. It’s time for Paterno to go to school by leaving school.
The board should have taken one more step. By canceling the game game against Nebraska Saturday, the forfeiture would stand forever as the moment big-time college sports realized it was a runaway train.