Penn State and Joe Paterno: A scandal that so easily could have been avoided

Don’t weep for Joe Paterno. If he really loved Penn State as much as he professed, he’d have fallen on his own sword a lot sooner, rather than letting the situation on campus reach a boiling point while trying to engineer his own retirement. If he loved kids as much as he professed, then he’d love all kids, not just the ones who attend Penn State, but also the ones who allegedly were lured there to see football games and ended up being raped and fondled in the showers. If he wanted to save his school and his program and even his friend from the firestorm engulfing them all now, all he had to do was pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1. Three digits.

When Paterno asked the students rallying on his behalf to pray for the victims, that’s when I knew his time was up. Pray for the victims? Sure, go ahead, it can’t hurt. Just realize you can’t give them back their innocence, their trust in adults, their childhoods.

But also be prepared to counsel them, to offer them the help and support that should have come years ago, and to write some big, fat checks. Because this university will be hit with a class action lawsuit, and hard. See also: Church, Catholic.

You look at Paterno and you see the thick glasses and the grandfatherly face and you may feel pity. I do, too. I pity his complete lack of understanding for the damage he has wrought. For nine years, by failing to take decisive action, a predator was allowed to remain free. When I look at Paterno, I think of a lot of innocent children who are no longer innocent.

Penn State’s board of trustees fired both Paterno and school president Graham Spanier on Wednesday night, further cleaning house in the wake of a grand jury investigation into child sex abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s former assistant.

Strange, isn’t it, this particular scandal? It’s not shoes or tattoos or parties with Ponzi-scheming hangers-on. No money exchanged hands; no AAU coach profited. And yet, despite the cynicism that builds up after nearly 30 years in this business, I have been so angry, so heartsick since Saturday that I can hardly think of anything else. Am I the only one?

Not all of those boys could have been saved. The very first ones — the ones we still don’t know about and probably never will, because they were victims before anyone suspected anything — those boys likely are lost. Predators start slow, and are often respected men. They usually don’t get caught on their first try. We do know that Sandusky started Second Mile, a group foster home that grew into a charity for underprivileged kids, in 1977, and he didn’t resign until 2010. That in itself is amazing.

Because in 1998, finally, a child had the courage to tell his mother what happened to him in those showers, and his mother called university police. The investigation was closed after the Centre County district attorney’s office refused to file criminal charges. However, the notion that Second Mile and Penn State officials knew nothing of an investigation done under their noses strains credulity. The next year, Sandusky resigned his assistant’s job. But he still had full access to campus. He still had access to the bait.

Even though the signs were there in 1998, no one stopped him. But in 2002, when grad assistant Mike McQueary allegedly walked in on that horrible scene in the showers, on campus, right there it could have stopped. That child, and every child that came after, could have been saved. I don’t care whether Sandusky never came back to the campus showers again. That doesn’t mean he stopped. Predators do not stop.

All it would have taken is a phone call to 9-1-1. Three little digits. Three little numbers, and that boy’s life might have been changed. Other boys’ lives might have been changed. Sandusky’s life certainly would have been changed. And Penn State wouldn’t be leaderless this morning.

Instead, McQueary left and called . . . his dad. McQueary was not a child, or an 18-year-old freshman. He was a 28-year-old, presumably of good health and strong build. Yet he walked away? When I was 28, I probably still called my dad if I had a perplexing question about my tax return, but if I saw a naked man raping a young boy in the showers, I would have dialed 9-1-1, pulled the man off the boy, incapacitated the man with a well-placed and much-enjoyed knee to the groin, and gotten the boy out of there.

Isn’t that what anyone in his right mind would do if he saw someone being raped? I certainly hope our world hasn’t fallen so far into the Slough of Despond that seeing forcible sex acts performed on a child isn’t something we shrug off. This is the sort of thing for which 911 was invented.

But for whatever reason, McQueary didn’t do those things, nor did his father call 9-1-1. Opportunity No. 2, wasted. Instead, they went to see Paterno the next day. Again, no phone call. Goodbye, Opportunity No. 3. And Paterno’s report up the chain of command was so unlike what the grand jury report says McQueary described to athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gray Schultz that it was like a bad game of Telephone. According to the grand jury report, Paterno described what McQueary told him as Sandusky “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy.” The same report says McQueary described it to Curley and Schultz as “anal sex.” Maybe Paterno didn’t believe it; maybe McQueary wasn’t clear.

And that’s why Paterno is gone. Yes, yes, he followed the chain of command and reported the incident to his superior, as did McQueary, so he followed the rules. McQueary was later told, according to the report, that Sandusky’s locker room keys had been taken and the incident had been reported to Second Mile. This was Opportunity No. 4, in my opinion, because this was McQueary’s chance to make the call. It was clear no one had contacted anyone with actual authority. Might McQueary have lost his job? Yes. Is letting a child be raped and doing nothing worth a line on your résumé? I would say no. Wouldn’t you?

Evil flourishes when good men do nothing. And at Penn State, a lot of men — good or not — did nothing when one of the greatest evils imaginable was perpetrated against some of the most defenseless among us.

When the dust settles in State College and the board of trustees begins to rebuild the university hierarchy, I am sure it will institute myriad changes in an effort to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. The easiest would be this: If you see a crime being perpetrated, do not send it up the chain of command. Of all the stupid rules that were followed at Penn State, that was the stupidest.

Crime happens, even in a place called Happy Valley. Letting football coaches and college administrators decide how to deal with it is as ridiculous as letting campus security run the football program. If a simple phone call had been made nine years ago, there would have been repercussions, but nothing like we’re seeing this week. Joe Paterno would have retired with his reputation intact. And more important — so much more important — a lot of children might have been spared. Just by dialing three digits. Dear God, just three little digits.

More PostSports.com

Joe Paterno fired as football coach at Penn State

Thomas Boswell: Penn State Coach Joe Paterno reaches a sad conclusion

Lavar Arrington: This is not how it should have ended for Joe Paterno

Jason Reid: Trustees do what coach could not

Photos: Paterno’s career at an end

Video: Paterno speaks to crowd after firing

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