Joe Paterno: In Defense of a Legend and Fearing a Dangerous Precedent

John ZieglerContributor INovember 9, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 08:  Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno (C) is greeted by a large group of students after arriving at his home, November 8, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania. Behind Paterno is his son Scott Paterno  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

I am a contrarian by nature (it makes me inherently nervous when almost everyone agrees on a controversial subject), but I honestly don’t think that is what is motivating my desire to defend Joe Paterno.

Instead, I am concerned that we may be unwittingly fueled by understandable emotion and setting some extremely dangerous precedents which may negatively impact our entire society.

Let me first say that if Paterno did really know all that he could (or even should) have known about all the heinous crimes that his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is alleged to have to committed, then there simply is no defense. Paterno should be fired immediately and his remarkable legacy should be forever tarnished.

However, what bothers me is that, despite the rush to convict Paterno in the media, we simply don’t know that yet.

If we give Paterno the benefit of the doubt (and if he doesn’t deserve that after all that he has accomplished, then who else would?), here is a plausible scenario of what actually went down.

Some of the alleged incidents occurred in 1998. It does not appear to have been a situation where there was overwhelming evidence. Sandusky suddenly retired in June of the next year. Is it not more than plausible that Paterno forced him out? Does he not potentially deserve at least some credit for that?

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Then in 2002, a graduate assistant apparently told Paterno that he witnessed a sexual act by Sandusky on a 10-year-old boy in the team shower. Paterno said under oath that he did not know the details of that allegation and a grand jury found his testimony to be credible.

This sounds plausible to me. Why is it so hard to believe that a grad assistant might be hesitant to be graphic and definitive in his description of a sex act involving a community/university hero? Remember, he is destroying an accomplished man’s (and one of his boss’s best friends) life. Maybe he wasn’t 100-percent sure what he really saw or just instinctively protected Paterno from the full truth.

At this point, Paterno did exactly what was legally required of him. He went to his superiors and told them what he had heard. After that, things get really murky.

Apparently, Penn State decided to basically to sit on the story and not go to the authorities. Sandusky himself was seemingly disciplined only by being barred from bringing kids on campus. This fact may be the single most damning detail in this entire pathetic saga.

How in the world do you decide that Sandusky is not worthy of bringing kids on campus but not alert the authorities when they knew he ran a foundation for at-risk children? That is simply inexplicable.

But, at least at this point, we don’t know what Paterno’s role in that decision making was. How do we know that Paterno was even involved or wasn’t the one pushing for some sort of punishment?

Why is it not plausible that Paterno was purposely kept in the dark by those in the program? Heck, by all accounts Paterno has been a figurehead coach for at least a decade. Wouldn’t it have simply been normal operating procedure to shield the old coach from anything that might be personally painful or potentially publicly damaging?

The primary point here is that we simply don’t have enough information yet to “convict” Joe Paterno of a massive moral failure and yet he has already been found guilty by an overwhelming percentage of the media desperate for a scapegoat.

Is it possible that Paterno knew all and did nothing to stop a pedophile from preying on young boys? Absolutely, but we don’t know that yet and Paterno should have earned the right to at least be allowed to explain himself before a verdict is read. Instead, his own incredible reputation is working against him because he is being held to a much higher standard than just about any other football coach would be.

That standard is far higher than most people seem to be currently understanding and I think rather dangerous for all us.

Put yourself in Paterno’s shoes. Giving him the benefit of the many current doubts, what we seem to be saying is that, unless he acts in 2002 (beyond what the law required) to destroy the life of a long-time friend and pillar of the community based only on apparently vague second-hand information, then his decades of greatness is erased.

Is that really a standard that we all feel comfortable with?  Will this not cause a culture of fear and create endless situations where innocent people are turned in to the police and where adults will be even more hesitant to show any sign of affection for a child?

There are no easy answers here, but when we consider all the public figures who have acted far worse and survived virtually unscathed in public perception (Bill Clinton, who was impeached for perjury in a sexual harassment case where he was the actual perpetrator and who was allowed to remain president of the United States, immediately comes to mind), it is disturbing that a man who has accomplished so much has been given so little chance to at least tell his side of the story.

His offer to resign at the end of the season is the proper result here. Not much else in this sad story so far would come close to qualifying.

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