“Tragic” is the single most over-used word in sports. Almost nothing that takes place within the context of sports is a tragedy. There is no such thing as a tragic loss or even a tragic injury.
What is happening right now at Penn State is, if not tragic, well beyond sad.
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.
The one thing that set Paterno apart from other coaches was that he so clearly understood that his responsibility to his players went well beyond making them better on the field. Paterno’s son Jay, now Penn State’s quarterbacks coach, repeated a well-known quote to Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski a couple of years ago.
“Years ago, before I had kids, my dad told me that what I couldn’t understand yet was that when you’re a parent how happy you are depends on the happiness of your least happy child,” Jay Paterno said. “He said, ‘Every kid we recruit is someone’s child or grandchild. They give us responsibility for something — someone — they treasure. It’s our responsibility to give them back a better person than when they came here.’”
That, in a nutshell, is why Paterno matters so much.
Yet in light of this grand jury report, it is impossible not to wonder why he didn’t think about the parents of the boy who was allegedly in the shower with Sandusky that fateful night in 2002. Paterno did the right thing when he called Curley the next day. But did he follow up? Didn’t he wonder why he had never been contacted by the police? Did he think about going directly to Sandusky, who had played and coached under him for 33 years?
It is entirely possible that Paterno has plausible answers for all these questions. It is also possible that Sandusky is not guilty, despite the frightening details in the 23-page grand jury report.
But right now Paterno and his program are facing a scandal that, if at all true, is sickening. Throughout this fall, there have been rumors that Paterno will finally step down when this season is over, shortly after he turns 85 on Dec. 21.
Until this past weekend, the thinking went that Paterno might announce his retirement before his team’s bowl game, so he can be given the sendoff he deserves.
Now, no one knows what will happen next. Curley and Schultz have stepped down from their posts to prepare to defend themselves. Sandusky’s lawyer says he’s not guilty. If what is alleged is true, the real victims are obviously the eight boys mentioned in the indictment and their families, whose lives no doubt were changed forever.
But if it turns out that, after telling Curley, Paterno didn’t try to protect these children with the same fervor with which he has protected the children sent to play football for him the past 46 years, then this will be a genuine college football tragedy.
There is nothing sadder than a fallen hero, especially one as worthy of hero status as Paterno has been. For years now, Penn State’s slogan has been, “Success with Honor.”
For 46 years, Paterno and Penn State lived up to that lofty claim. Now, the honor may be gone. And if it is, the success will be indelibly tainted.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com