Why Joe Paterno Deserves As Much Blame As University Administrators in Scandal

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 09:  Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno watches his team during practice on November 9, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Freeh Report was released on Thursday morning, and it did nothing to shed a better light on Joe Paterno's involvement in a cover-up orchestrated by Penn State administrators in regard to Jerry Sandusky's child abuse.

If anything, Paterno came out of the report looking worse for his involvement, and the Freeh Report included him as one of the four figures most responsible for concealing information about Sandusky:

Taking into account the available witness statements and evidence, the Special Investigative Counsel finds that it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the University—[President Graham B.] Spanier, [Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C.] Schultz, Joe Paterno and [Athletic Director Tim] Curley—repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from the authorities, the University's Board of Trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large.

Perhaps the most damning finding against Paterno is that he in fact knew about the 1998 investigation into Sandusky, which he previously denied.

It would be easy to start ascribing levels of responsibility to claim one man—between Spanier, Schultz, Paterno or Curley—is the biggest villain in this case. We like to do that; we like one person to be the biggest scapegoat, to take the biggest fall. It's the easy way to analyze this cover-up.

And perhaps in some way we've all been hoping that Paterno would come out of this report looking better than his previous portrayal when the scandal broke. Perhaps we've all hoped the legendary coach wouldn't need to fall so far from grace in our eyes.

But that's not the right way to view this scenario. As the Freeh Report thoroughly suggests, all four of these men played a huge part in this cover-up. At any point, if any one individual had stepped up and gone to the authorities, who knows how many other victims might have been spared?

That includes Paterno.

He wasn't just a football coach at Penn State; we all know that. Paterno was the most important person in the history of the university. He was the most associated public face of the school. He was one of the most powerful men on campus and was a symbol of honor, high character and dignity for the university.

Had he stepped forward and demanded the university's administrators go to the authorities—or had he gone to the authorities with the allegations himself—this scenario could have played out differently.

We can't simply brush aside his involvement. We can't claim that Spanier or Schultz were more to blame because they were higher-ranking officials at Penn State. This was a collective failure by four powerful men, and they deserve to be judged together.

When asked who he felt was most responsible for the cover-up, Louis Freeh at his press conference noted (and I'm paraphrasing) that he couldn't parse individual degrees of responsibility in this instance—that, collectively, these four men made a decision to withhold information.

In other words, they each played their part, and had just one of them done the right thing at any stage in the cover-up, perhaps other victims of Sandusky could have been spared.

For that, Joe Paterno must be held in as high a blame as anyone else involved in the cover-up.

But much like we shouldn't ascribe levels of villainy for these four men, we shouldn't judge Paterno by just this scandal. We've learned that he was a flawed man, yes, and that he made a despicable mistake by not coming forward with this information.

He himself admitted that he should have done more, after all.

But Paterno was more than this mistake. He did a lot of good for a lot of people, and we can't forget that either. People are complex; full of beautiful moments and regrettable mistakes. Some—like this instance—are more regrettable than others. Some are much less forgivable.

The lesson here is that Paterno was neither a hero nor a villain. He was just a man. A huge reason why this cover-up existed stemmed from the borderline religious reverence Paterno and the football program were treated with at Penn State.

What have we learned if we change the narrative and only see him as a villain? What have we learned if we judge him on less than the totality of his life, taking both the good and bad into account?

These four men collectively deserve to be judged for their actions. The decision they made to cover up the information they did was deplorable and facilitated further sexual abuse. They all played a huge part, and for that, they must collectively be held responsible.

As the Freeh Report has shown, Paterno must equally be included in the judgement. He could have done more.

He should have done more.

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