Paterno replied, “I do not know of anything else that Jerry would be involved in of that nature, no. I do not know of it.”
Paterno’s family continued to insist Thursday via a statement that Paterno’s account was not inconsistent with the facts, and he “always believed, as we do, that the full truth should be uncovered.”
But Paterno was no more interested in the full truth than Walt Disney.
In his final interview, he played the faux-naif who insisted he had “never heard of rape and a man.” Who hadn’t followed up on McQueary’s report out of squeamishness. Who was wary of interfering in university “procedure.” Who insisted it was unfair to put Penn State on trial along with a pedophile, and that this was not “a football scandal.”
In fact, in 2001 Paterno had every reason to suspect Sandusky was a serial defiler of children. In fact, Paterno was not reluctant to interfere in university procedure; he helped dictate it. In fact, this was a football scandal. The crimes were committed by a former assistant football coach in the football building. Ten boys, and 45 criminal counts, at least five of them molested on the Penn State campus after 1998 when Paterno committed the awful misjudgment of continuing to allow Sandusky to bring boys to his locker room, so sure was he that Sandusky was “a good guy.”
We can’t un-rape and un-molest those boys. We can’t remove them from the showers and seize them back from the hands of Sandusky. That should have been an unrelenting source of rage and grief to Paterno. Yet in perhaps the most damaging observation of all, the Freeh report accuses Paterno and his colleagues of “a striking lack of empathy” for the victims.
Everything else about Paterno must now be questioned; other details about him begin to nag. You now wonder if his self-defense was all an exercise in sealing off watertight compartments, leaving colleagues on the outside to drown. You wonder if he performed a very neat trick in disguising himself as a modest and benevolent man. The subtle but constant emphasis on his Ivy League education, the insistence that Penn State football had higher standards, now looks more like rampant elitism.
Undeniably, for many years Paterno did virtuous work at Penn State. His combined winning records and graduation rates were indeed much higher than those of his peers. It’s a relevant part of the Penn State affair and worth stating, because it contributed to the institutional response. The Freeh report cited “numerous individual failings,” but it also found “weaknesses of the University’s culture, governance, administration, compliance policies and procedures for protecting children.” As other commentators have rightly observed, Paterno’s huge successes helped form those potholes. He was the university’s culture.
He was the self-appointed arbiter of character and justice in State College. He had decided Sandusky was “a good man” in 1998, and he simply found it too hard to admit he made a fatal misjudgment and gave a child molester the office nearest to his. He was more interested in protecting a cardboard cutout legacy than the flesh and blood of young men.
The only explanation I can find for this “striking lack of empathy” is self-absorption. In asking how a paragon of virtue could have behaved like such a thoroughly bad guy, the only available answer is that Paterno fell prey to the single most corrosive sin in sports: the belief that winning on the field makes you better and more important than other people.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.