If the sexual abuse and assault charges brought by a Pennsylvania grand jury against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky prove to be true on any level, then this will be the single worst thing that has happened in college sports in just about forever.
That’s not to diminish what happened at Baylor in 2003, when one basketball player killed another. Or the death of any athlete, on the field or off.
The sexual abuse alleged in the Penn State case is tragic in its own right, but in a completely different way, this story is heartbreaking because it involves Joe Paterno. No football coach has meant more to his sport in the past 50 years than Paterno, and his 409 victories at Penn State are only a small part of why he is who he is. In an era when so much is wrong with college athletics, Paterno always has stood for all that is right .
When USC, Ohio State, Miami and North Carolina are caught cheating in one way or another, most people roll their eyes and say, ‘Here we go again.’ When public records from a lawsuit allege that an agent was bankrolling a basketball player and his mother starting when the kid was 14, the reaction is more eye-rolling. The university presidents publicly wring their hands, declare they’re shocked cheating is going on and go back to counting their money.
But Joe Paterno is Joe Paterno. The only other name in college athletics in the last 50 years who engenders the kind of universal respect Paterno has is retired North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. If you can’t trust Paterno, whom can you trust?
To be sure, the grand jury report does not suggest Paterno did anything legally wrong. When a graduate assistant coach came to his house to tell him what he had accidentally witnessed in a shower in the Penn State locker room, Paterno told his boss, Athletic Director Tim Curley, about it the next day.
It was, according to the grand jury, Curley and a university vice president named Gary Schultz who not only didn’t follow through once they had been told about what occurred but allegedly were less-than-honest about their actions when testifying. That’s why both men have been charged with perjury. In a statement issued by Penn State, the attorneys for Curley and Schultz said their clients are not guilty.
Penn State President Graham Spanier also knew about the allegations and trusted in Curley and Schultz to do what was right — which, according to the grand jury report, they didn’t.
In truth, Spanier, Curley and Schultz don’t matter, except perhaps within the Penn State community. They are, like most people, replaceable functionaries. They’re like streetcars — when one rounds the corner, there’s another one coming along soon.
There’s won’t be another Paterno coming along anytime soon.