Michael Tomasky: Penn State Coach Joe Paterno’s Moral Fall

The legendary Penn State coach is reportedly in line to be pushed out over negligence in reporting alleged sexual abuse. Michael Tomasky on his moral failure—and why he should quit now.

Paul Vathis, File / AP Photo

Could it be that on some deep and horrible psychological level, it was precisely the fact of Joe Paterno’s moral authority—and God, did he have it, not only as much as anyone in college football, but as much as any prominent person in America in any field—that enabled this revolting daisy chain of denial to exist at Penn State? Because, after all, he was a great man. A great moral man. Great moral men don’t hire depraved monsters. Great moral men don’t let things like this happen in their orbit. Great moral men take care of these things. But he didn’t. This kind of thing could have happened at any university. But it could have happened the exact way it did only at Penn State, where everyone, from that cowed janitor to the president, takes his cues from Coach.

Let us first be blunt about the facts at hand, because some media outlets resort to the kind of euphemism that appallingly softens the blow of what Jerry Sandusky is alleged to have done to “Victim 2,” as he is called in the grand-jury report Forgive my language, but here at the Beast we are permitted these very occasional lapses, so let me say it plainly, the better to ensure that we all understand just how shocking and sickening this is: On the evening of March 1, 2002, Sandusky, it is alleged, was raping a 10-year-old boy in his anus. A 10-year-old boy. In the very showers used by the Nittany Lions players. A boy Sandusky had seduced with promises of things like tickets to games and visits to the mighty Penn State locker room. A graduate assistant, also a former star quarterback and today still an assistant to Paterno, saw it and went to his father. His father told him to go not to the police, according to the report, but to Paterno. The great man would make it right.

The great man is indeed in some ways a great man. I’m a college-football nut. I grew up in Morgantown, W. Va., a fire-breathing fan of the Mountaineer teams that in my youth Paterno’s squads serially crushed until that great day in 1984 (I was there; Kevin White was our quarterback) when we finally beat them for the first time since 1955. Yet I was also a Penn State fan, in my younger days, as most people in Morgantown were except for one Saturday a year: Penn State then represented Eastern football on the big national stage, so when they got to the Sugar Bowl or Cotton Bowl, you cheered for them to lay some northeastern paste on those braggarts from Alabama or Texas.

And you respected Penn State. You had to. They were good, and they were good: fine young men, early to integrate, high graduation rates. All that was Paterno. A literature major at Brown, for chrissakes. Yet another thing to like about him. I liked him less after he joined the Big 10, crushing Eastern conference hopes (a move that reverberates to this day, as we watch the Big East conference asphyxiate). I liked him less still when I read that he (and Lou Holtz) had attended Newt Gingrich’s birthday party in 1995. That was mitigated many years later when I saw that his son had endorsed Barack Obama and his daughter Hillary Clinton in 2008. “I brought my kids up to think for themselves from Day One,” Paterno said, rather charmingly, at the time.

Just two weeks ago—the gods do love irony—Paterno became the winningest coach in the history of college football. And now? It is hard to imagine he has any remotely supportable defense. He said in his first statement that he followed the chain of command when the graduate assistant came to him. He also evidently told the grand jury that the GA didn’t get specific about what he saw—that he witnessed something inappropriate between Sandusky and an underage boy.

There is no good way out of this one. If Paterno is lying and was told specifically about sodomy, then (a) he’s lying and (b) he did nothing more, upon learning this vile news, than have one discussion with the athletic director. And if he’s not lying, then (a) he didn’t press the GA for details, after hearing that something illegal and reprehensible happened in his showers and (b) didn’t banish Sandusky, who had retired by then as a coach but maintained full access to Penn State athletic facilities until 2009. Maybe Paterno spoke with Sandusky. But he sure didn’t punish him.

And if Paterno didn’t punish him, who else was going to? It was all up to him. Ever heard of the president of Penn State (until maybe yesterday)? Didn’t think so. Graham Spanier would have done anything JoePa told him to.

“I can’t do it myself,” JoePa might have said. “Sandusky is my friend for 30 years. But Graham, call the police, right now, while I’m sitting here.”

“Yes, sir, Coach.”

Easy. That he didn’t do it is unconscionable. Totally and eternally unconscionable.

I occasionally think, with no small amount of fear: I believe that I am a moral person, but if I am confronted some day with a situation that requires real moral bravery of me, where I really have to choose, and it will hurt—would I do the right thing? None of us knows until that moment comes. But when it comes, it comes, and nothing you’ve done up to that point matters anymore. You’ve educated and guided hundreds of young men. Admirable. But a 10-year-old boy was anally raped right under your nose. What are you going to do about it?

He failed. And when he failed, the whole system was destined to fail, because he was the system. He should resign immediately and come clean about what he failed to do. And he should ask himself if he really wants to go out (he’s 85 years old) by lawyering up and not budging. He still has credibility in the eyes of millions. He should use it.

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UPDATE: The New York Times is now reporting that Penn State officials are "said to be planning" (as the headline put it) Paterno's exit, which could happen "within days or weeks." His regular weekly press conference, which is usually devoted to Saturday's opponent (Nebraska), was canceled earlier.

So now the question is whether school officials let him coach out the season. Argument for: all the good he's done over the years, some of which is detailed in the Times piece, has earned him a soft landing, even in spite of all this. Argument against: letting him hang around for three more regular-season games and possibly even a bowl game (which would happen two long months from now) just keeps this story front and center, distracts the team, and causes the school continuing agony. I say, with all due respect for his many accomplishments, he should leave this week. He should be that rare public figure who handles something like this with a little dignity. Take responsibility and quit now.