Joe Paterno’s Troubling Attitude Toward Sex Charges

Joe Paterno's fall from grace came as a shock, but only to those who missed signs of ethical decay in his football regime. Nick Summers on Paterno's troubling view of abuse charges. Plus, Michael Tomasky says cancel the season!

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / Zuma

Four years after Penn State head coach Joe Paterno was told that his longtime defensive coordinator had allegedly sexually abused a child in the team showers, it appeared that the legendary coach still did not think that sexual assault was such a big deal.

In 2006, on the eve of the Orange Bowl, Paterno had this to say about a Florida State linebacker named A. J. Nicholson who had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman: “There’s so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do?”

Paterno continued to a group of reporters: “Geez. I hope—thank God they don’t knock on my door, because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms.”

After Paterno’s comments became public, the National Organization for Women called for his resignation.

“I’m not going to say anything about it,” Paterno told ESPN a few days later. “Most people know me. I am what I am.”

Paterno earned much of his lustrous reputation for insisting on high standards of discipline from his players—benching them for skipping class or earning poor grades. He was fired this week after the publication of a grand-jury report described how he did not go to the police in 2002, after a graduate assistant in the football program told him what he saw in the team showers: Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s former defensive coach, sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy. Sandusky has been charged with preying on young boys over a 15-year period.

To many, Paterno’s fall from grace has come as a sudden and stunning shock. But in recent years, the football regime over which he presided like a god had begun to show signs of ethical decay. A search of media and court records by the Daily Beast reveals a program at Penn State marred by allegations of sexual aggression. At times those incidents met with apparent indulgence by Paterno and college authorities. Paterno’s failure to report Sandusky’s alleged assault was not the only time the head coach appeared to have an ambiguous approach toward members of his program accused of sexual misconduct.

In late 2002, Penn State cornerback Anwar Phillips was accused by a classmate of sexual assault, and the university suspended him for two semesters. But before his suspension began, the Nittany Lions were to play Auburn in the middle of January in the Capital One Bowl. Paterno put Phillips in uniform.

And Paterno apparently had support from above. In his 2005 book about Paterno, The Lion in Autumn, sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick described the uproar that followed. Athletics director Tim Curley, who has been charged with failing to report a crime and perjuring himself in front of the grand jury, insisted in 2003 that it had been “appropriate” for Phillips to play; university administrators said that a miscommunication was to blame.

Paterno refused to say whether he even knew Phillips had been accused or suspended. “What happened, happened. I have very little control over it,” he said that spring, according to Fitzpatrick.

Paterno added later: “That’s nobody’s business but mine. It’s not the fans’ business, and it’s not yours.” No one but Paterno, of course, knows whether what he had been told about Sandusky four years earlier crossed his mind.

In April of 2003, now-fired university president Graham Spanier announced a change in policy to ensure that students suspended by the school would actually be barred from the playing field. Phillips was tried later that year in criminal court, where a jury acquitted him.

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“The handling of the matter, and what was seen as the use of a loophole to permit Phillips to play, struck many as an indication that Paterno and Penn State were no longer the bastion of ethics they claimed to be,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “When a bowl game was at stake, even they were willing to abandon the moral high ground.”

Other close observers of Paterno’s world made a connection between sporting success and signs of impunity in the world beyond the field. “Has Penn State’s on-field progress led to off-field problems?” the ESPN program Outside the Lines asked in 2008. As the Nittany Lions won more games, their players more often broke the law. Between 2002 and 2008, 46 Penn State players were charged with a total of 163 crimes; 27 were found guilty. The Daily Beast was not able to obtain information confirming how many of those charged were accused of sex crimes but there were at least four cases of students accused of sex crimes during that period.

Penn State is far from the only sports program to have a problem with sex crimes. Nor is the problem limited to college sports. In 2004, with a rape trial for NBA star Kobe Bryant in the news, USA Today combed court records and found that of 168 sexual-assault allegations made against professional and student athletes over a 12-year period, just 22 went to trial, and only six resulted in convictions. Forty-six cases ended in plea agreements, the newspaper found—a stark contrast to the conviction rates for nonathletes.

The rape of a child is, of course, different than the rape of an adult woman—a different crime, punished differently by the law, and with different lasting effects on the victim. But when the crime may have been perpetrated by a person affiliated with a popular sports program some ugly parallels emerge. Incidents can go unreported, perpetrators unpunished—or lightly punished—and the police kept out of things.

“It really is the same thing,” said Delilah Rumburg, who heads the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. “There is this betrayal when someone you know rapes you, whether you’re a child or adult.” Institutions—whether a sports program or, say, the Catholic Church—reflexively protect their own, which allows predators to stay free, Rumburg says. “They build this cloak of secrecy to protect an icon, as well as the institution,” says Rumburg. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t let someone know that this is happening within our family’—in this case, an institution that happens to be Penn State.”

In 2000, the Department of Justice estimated that in any academic year, there are 35 rape incidents per 1,000 women on campus. There is conflicting literature on whether student athletes commit more than their share. Sexual assault statistics are notoriously difficult to calculate. The FBI describes rape as the most underreported crime in the nation, especially in cases involving young victims and family members. Victims fail to come forward for a number of reasons, such as shame, stigma, and not wanting to relive the experience for police and a jury. When the offender is a player or coach for the victim’s megapopular sports program, even more factors come into play. Any accusation is guaranteed to bring media scrutiny, and the accuser risks ostracization on campus.

“We hear these stories all the time,” says Rumburg. “It’s awful what happens to a rape victim that comes forward when it’s a high-profile figure, and a sports icon in particular. It’s a shame. They really do demonize the women that report.”

Sarah McMahon, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Social Work, and the author of a 2004 paper titled Student-Athletes, Rape-Supportive Culture, and Social Change, agrees. “To come forward anytime sexual violence occurs, it’s a huge threat, but when there’s this high-profile status it’s exacerbated,” she says. “You’re not just challenging an individual, you’re challenging an institution. And sports at Penn State is an institution.”

These are, of course, only the cases that are reported to authorities and become public. “Cases like Penn State unfortunately remind us that there is still a lot of silence that exists for victims, and that void is itself probably going to [prevent] a number of victims from coming forward,” says McMahon. “Penn State, by removing Coach Paterno, is making a statement that this is unacceptable. Now they are at least taking some action, to say that this was wrong.”