James Carville once cracked that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other -- and Alabama in between. Carville was making a snarky and not totally accurate political point. But there is a world of difference between life in Pennsylvania’s big cities and life in its interior. If any place epitomizes the virtues of small-town America, as well as its defects, this might be it.
Penn State University towers over the region, providing higher education, but also jobs, identity and pride. And within Penn State, no figure has been more powerful, or beloved, than Joe Paterno. Dispensing epigrammatic wisdom and charitable dollars for half a century, Paterno was far more than head coach of a reputedly uniquely ethical winning college football program. He was the uncrowned king of a small, close-knit community – a benevolent dictator whose very name means “fatherly” in Italian.
Elsewhere, perhaps, power might corrupt, and absolute power might corrupt absolutely. But not in Paterno’s Happy Valley.
Or so it seemed, until this week. What’s happening in State College is no mere “scandal.” It is the shattering of a belief system. Cognitive dissonance barely describes the dawning realization that, for many years, “Joe Pa” was not, in fact, an avatar of decency. He was a compromised and calculating old boss, who, at the very least, failed to act decisively against alleged serial child molestation by a long-time assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.
The Penn State students who chanted Paterno’s praises and smashed windows in his honor behaved inexcusably, but comprehensibly. In the face of sudden moral confusion, rage is one of youth’s coping mechanisms.
What, though, of adults in the community who still extenuate Paterno? What of those who say that Joe did what the law required, or that he didn’t know – or that, after all his good works, he at least deserved a chance to coach a few last football games?
Well, Paterno did do a lot of good, for a lot of people. But one of Paterno’s good works was to serve on the board of Sandusky’s charity for at-risk kids. All the while, Sandusky was allegedly exploiting the organization to recruit victims.
Paterno built a library on campus. But how many libraries offset the destruction of young lives that went on for years right under Paterno’s nose -- or the utter implausibility of Paterno’s claims now that he handled reports about Sandusky appropriately, based on what he knew at the time?
Kevin Boyle is a state legislator in Pennsylvania who wants to toughen the state laws that require state employees and officials only to report child abuse allegations up the chain of command – within the very institution that might have an interest in suppressing them. Here’s what he said Thursday night on CNN:
[T]he current legislation on the books … allows for conspiracies. It allows for cover-ups. And I feel if we had stronger legislation on the books, Paterno, who I'm sure was lawyered up from the get-go, would have reported this to the police and hopefully there wouldn't have been as many as a dozen victims in the last decade. . . .
Unfortunately, my district in Philadelphia was at the epicenter of the most recent scandal pertaining to the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The local district attorney here, Seth Williams, released a report about a mass conspiracy locally to not protect children. To basically keep this under the carpet. And when I saw this happen again with Penn State, I said here we go again. And that's what's happening. I think it was a deliberate plot on -- of Penn State to cover this up.
Penn State football is a huge money-maker for the school. Last year they made over $50 million. This is big business. And unfortunately, protecting kids came secondary to the institution.
Strong words. But people need to consider them -- along with the words of former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer. Paterno once sneered that he would never retire, lest college football be left to Switzer and his supposedly unethical ilk. (The two later made up.) Here’s what Switzer says now:
Having been in this profession a long time and knowing how close coaching staffs are, I knew that this was a secret that was kept secret. Everyone on that staff had to have known, the ones that had been around a long time.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who also failed to intervene decisively, even after he saw Sandusky apparently raping a child in the locker room, should be allowed to keep coaching. Apparently, the mob has now settled that issue: McQueary will not be at Saturday’s Nebraska game, due to threats against him. Whether he’s hated because he didn’t rescue the child or because his grand jury testimony harmed Paterno, or both, is not clear.
I want to know why Penn State’s tainted program is even playing. The university should have canceled the game and called for an afternoon of reflection on the things that really matter in life.
Beating Nebraska is not one of them.