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November 14, 2011

A Tattered Legacy

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The air in the hills around Beaver Canyon is heavy these days. State College, PA, the shrine to success in the ranks of collegiate football, finds itself the center of a storm the likes of which we haven’t seen since the priesthood sex scandals surrounding the Roman Catholic Church.


The university is awash in a sickening scandal, a horrific story about a senior assistant football coach, who is alleged to have committed acts of sexual depravity with children entrusted to his care, and the reaction of those around him once rumors and eyewitness reports surfaced.


You see, this isn’t just a story of justice being delivered to a child sex predator. This is also a sordid story of pressure – the pressure of a big-time college football program desperate to preserve its image, its legendary head coach, and the university’s ability to raise money and recruit students.


Jerry Sandusky, the defensive assistant to Head Coach Joe Paterno, held his job for over two decades. Mr. Sandusky was acknowledged as a genius, both on the field and in training. Scores of outstanding defensive players in the National Football League were tutored by him, including some present and future Hall of Famers.


Maybe it makes the fall more attention-getting, but the crimes Mr. Sandusky is said to have committed against little boys easily erases whatever glamour he achieved in his long and successful coaching career.


Coach Paterno, on the other hand, is the tragic figure in this drama. Joe Pa, as he’s known to current and past Nittany Lions, has always tried to run a tight football ship. He was known to talk about the importance of an education in the classroom as well as the gridiron. Joe Pa was one of the most charitable donors to the university system, including the library on campus named in his honor.


Joe Pa was one the lower paid head coaches in the top ranks of the NCAA. When Lou Saban, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer were making millions per year, Joe Pa was pulling in $500,000. Not an insignificant amount, for sure, but meager when compared to his competitors. Joe Pa also tried hard to keep the spotlight of controversy away from his players and program. This is what makes the actions of Mr. Sandusky, the university, and football programs reaction to them so stupefying.


The rumors of inappropriate contact between Mr. Sandusky and children in his summer football camp for the underprivileged date back more than 10 years. Reports were filed, external investigations undertaken, and one could safely assume the proper authorities would have taken the appropriate steps.


Sadly, nothing was further from the truth.


The reports got buried, the investigations closed, and Mr. Sandusky allegedly continued to victimize children. A graduate student and former quarterback supposedly interrupted one attack in the shower, and instead of this 6’4” powerful athlete physically pulling the aged rapist off the child, he quietly retreated, called his father, and at his father’s urging, simply left the building.


At least the witness had the sense to report the incident, which led to Coach Paterno being notified. Again, instead of this legendary leader of men directly confronting the accused, Joe Pa went to the Penn State athletic director to report what he’d been told.


The director of athletics and another university system official have now been charged with lying under oath to a grand jury, parties to a cover-up designed to protect the system and football program from the very damage now being wrought by the late disclosure.


The fallout will continue, as it always does in stories like this. The president of the University was fired alongside Coach Paterno, both victims of the sin of omission. In the world of NCAA top-tier football programs, the president of the university is relegated to a backup role to the football team’s head coach. Most people have no idea who runs the school; they just know who coaches the team. Penn State was no different.


So, now the students will protest. They’ve already burned a television news van, but Joe Pa told the students to go back to their dorms and study. Even in the face of adversity, he’s still worried about his school.


Current players will look to transfer, knowing that the likelihood is that Penn State will begin a decades-long fall from the top ranks. Coaches will continue to worry, as the still-emerging details may cause the blame fire to spread, burning some who so far are untouched.


It will be harder to recruit top high school players without Joe Pa visiting their high school and meeting the parents. It will be tougher to sell tickets, to sign big TV and radio deals, to entice alumni to donate large sums, and, in general, to conduct the business of higher education.


All of this loss, suffering, and sadness over the fall of a big-time college football team and its legendary coach leave out the real victim, the true cost of the tragedy.


At the end of the day, God help those little boys who were subjected to this sick monster’s unconstrained exercise of power. May they find the peace to face the future without Jerry Sandusky’s scar on their minds and souls.


As you bemoan the fact that Joe Paterno’s final accounting will inevitably fall on this scandal versus his successes in coaching, remember that those children don’t get to make a choice. Because Joe Paterno and other adults at Penn State University they trusted let them down, they live with an almost unbearable burden.


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