As the scandal continues to grow and new details emerge in State College, PA, one receives any bit of news with an almost palpable mix of bewilderment, helplessness and outrage.
Oh yes, Penn State University’s legendary football coach and icon, Joe Paterno—who is about as universally celebrated a coach as American sports has ever produced—has announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season. I received the news, and it barely registered, as I continue to wrestle with the following elemental questions that were sparked by the Grand Jury Presentment regarding former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s monstrous predatory acts against young boys.
Three essential questions continue to prey on my mind:
Who stood up to Sandusky?
Who stood with the witnesses?
Who stood up for the children?
Let me get this disclaimer out of the way; I should say allegedly, but I am writing on the assumption that events more or less unfolded as appears in the Presentment. Obviously, all are innocent until proven guilty, although I do not doubt for a millisecond that all eight victims were abused as described. A ninth victim has since spoken out, and one only prays, however much in vain, that there were not more.
Allow me one more thing off the top: This is not a novel, nor a movie, despite all the crazy twists, turns and ingredients that have suddenly captured the national media. The victims and their families are very real, and so, too, are those who did the victimizing and in some fashion allowed it to happen. There is a responsibility to express an honest opinion and to never forget that these people—public figures or not—are real.
To publish a column anywhere is to take responsibility for my words and to try to do justice to my byline, my readers and the people and topics I write about. I say this whether I have 100 or so readers or more than a million.
All that being said, like everyone, I filter facts and news through the prism of my own experiences while trying to keep an open mind.
There is nothing in my own experience to relate to what Sandusky thought about and acted on, and what those poor children and their families went through and are still going through. What he did, and was enabled to do, was reprehensible and incomprehensible. Like many, I extend whatever sympathy and empathy I have to those children—and to so many more who endure and hopefully triumph over such events.
So again, I ask: Who ever stood up to Sandusky?
The Presentment depicts a bizarre, horrible shower incident with Victim No. 6 (an 11-year-old boy at the time) in 1998 that was reported to University police, investigated and was escalated to then-Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar.
Tragically, as facts would play out, it was decided that no criminal charges would be filed against Sandusky.
What exactly happened there?
Were they protecting Sandusky? Were they preserving the Penn State brand?
Who was there to stand up to him? Even if they did not recognize the demon inside the then-respected coach, they must have known that he had a serious problem.
Did anybody—from the police to the powers-that-be—care at all about this victim and the distinct possibility of future victims, given Sandusky’s work with The Second Mile organization that he founded?
There is no evidence to support that they did, and while Sandusky is clearly the most culpable person in these hideous crimes, the record shows that Sandusky was allowed to retain his defensive coordinator position for another year before retiring to concentrate on work with The Second Mile.
We have learned that Sandusky continued to maintain an office, and he had full access to Penn State’s facilities for years beyond this and other atrocities. Shockingly, he was reported to have been seen working out on campus in the last week, had brought a young boy with him to a practice as recently in 2007, and continued to run camps at a satellite campus in Erie, PA.
So, who exactly stood up to Sandusky—if only for the man’s own good?
And yes, that concern should have been dwarfed a million times over by concern for the youngsters that were under his watch.
Of course, this was all under the aegis of one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the country. This was presumed to be the model football program for both excellence and integrity, and Coach Paterno was probably the most respected head coach in the land.
The Grand Jury finding presents another shower incident in 2000, where a janitor actually witnessed Sandusky performing oral sex on a young boy (victim No. 8) described as between the ages of 11 and 13. Quite shaken, the janitor reported it to other co-workers, who all lived in fear of losing their jobs if it was reported.
The report goes on to tell us that the janitor, still shaking, reported it to his immediate supervisor who “told him to whom he should report the incident, if he chose to report it.”
Once again, who was there to stand up to Sandusky, to stand with this witness and to stand with this child? Not that supervisor.
Finally, the situation that has sparked the most discussion was the 2002 (shower) incident that was witnessed by then graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, a man of 28 at the time and currently an assistant coach (for now) with the team.
McQueary was an eyewitness to something barbaric, made eye contact with both Sandusky and the boy, and then left the room to initially call his father.
All of us have imagined what we would have done in that situation, and most are appalled at McQueary’s own reaction. He left the room, shaken, retreated to his office and called his father. The next day, he contacted Paterno, and that’s where one does not need to be the least bit cynical to smell the makings of a cover-up, which would also be consistent with the picture we have of the 1998 incident.
In my own mind, I wish McQueary would have done any or all of the following: a) bludgeoned Sandusky; b) rescued the child and c) called the police.
He has been the target of much vitriol, and I can’t blame those who have been appalled at his lack of action in the moment of truth. He came up small, and certainly did not stand up to Sandusky or stand for the child’s interests when he could have.
To my mind, he has not been alleged to have lied about the incident in any way or done anything to thwart an investigation. Until we hear from him, he, unfortunately, deserves some of his depiction as the poster boy for inaction and cowardice.
But did he play any part in the sick, twisted cover-up that followed? I reserve my harshest judgment (apart from Sandusky, of course) for those who did. The just-retired Athletic Director Howard Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz head this list.
From the report, my supposition is that these men (and is it a stretch to include School President Graham Spanier?) knowingly and willingly impeded an investigation.
Of course, none of them acted in a way that stood up to Sandusky, stood with the witness (McCleary) or stood up for children. Was it arrogance, insularity, lack of caring or loyalty of a most misguided sort that guided their decisions? Only they know what guided them, but all of those factors led to systematic cruelty.
Of course, the link from McQueary to those men went through Joe Paterno. Part of me still hopes that Paterno cared about something other than keeping the allegations under wraps for whatever arrogant, misguided reasons he had.
We wait to truly hear from him, but the impression so many of us get is that Paterno had no intention of standing up to Sandusky (as far back as 1998, if not earlier), of standing with McQueary or standing up for the young children that were, by extension, under his watch.
The hope and prayer is that we will see and hear a glimmer of humanity and caring from any authority figure connected with this abominable story, especially Paterno.
Spanier (and he may be ousted before this is even published) has been either silent, or remarkably tone deaf, and Paterno’s comments to this point have come off as highly self-serving.
It is too late to prevent what Sandusky has already inflicted upon those precious youngsters, whom we pray are finding the courage to move on. But even if far too little or far too late, any sincere expression of humanity from a celebrated institution of higher learning will be welcome.
Can there be anything positive to be offered to the victims, their families and to other innocent children? How do we make this our focus, and can this university and others band together to try to get the aftermath of this horrific saga right?
And yes, life goes on.
Penn State hosts Nebraska in an “important” Big Ten matchup on Senior Day. With apologies to all of the well-meaning coaches, players and fans who had absolutely nothing to do with this: Who the heck cares?
The winningest coach in Division I history, a man synonymous with a university and a state is retiring, and may have even coached his last game.
Okay, so who will stand up for our children?