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Why in the hell is Penn State preparing for a football game Saturday?
Believe me, I’m a big college football fan. No other sort of nutcase would spend his Saturday afternoons in the fall watching Northwestern—a team as imperfect as they come—alternate between last-minute failures and astounding upsets, with the occasional blowout loss thrown in to mix things up.... And I’ve actually enjoyed all of them.
But you know what? Football is a game. If I needed a reminder, it came in the form of a news break during the Wildcats’ thrilling win over Nebraska last weekend. That’s when I first heard about the arrest of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for the alleged sexual assaults of eight boys over a 15-year period.
Not much information was available then, but more keeps coming out, and, like many, I am struggling to fathom what went on.
What’s happening in State College right now is a horror show, not a game, yet so far Penn State officials haven't understood the difference. It’s as if they’re worried that the news of boys being raped by a football coach will prove to be a distraction as the Nittany Lions prepare to face Nebraska.
This morning Coach Joe Paterno announced that he’ll retire at the end of the season. That’s worse than if he’d declared he wasn’t going anywhere, because now he’s acknowledging that he failed to do all he could have to protect children from a monster who worked for him—while signaling that accountability can wait until the Nittany Lions try to pick up a few more victories. This has the stench of damage control, not the look of justice. In fact, there’s not even a vague resemblance.
“I wish I had done more,” Paterno said. I appreciate that someone tangled up in this outrage has come out and said so, but then again, I’m not sure what exactly he’s referring to. Presumably Paterno is talking about the time he learned that Sandusky—a man once considered likely to be the next head coach at Penn State—was seen assaulting a boy in a shower at a school athletic facility. That was in 2002.
But given how shockingly little the school or Paterno himself have come clean to this point, I’m left wondering if he’s alluding to other incidents before then. Sandusky, after all, “retired” in 1999, when he was still in his mid-50s.
Part of me feels for Joe Pa, a master coach in a game I love, especially when he describes this chain of events—a series of crimes followed by a cover-up—as “one of the great sorrows of my life.”
But then I think about the eight boys whose lives were changed forever by an apparent predator, a guy who reportedly had enough standing at Penn State to use their football training facilities as recently as last week—years after the criminal investigation had been launched.
“I just want to hear Paterno offer some sort of explanation,” my brother, Dave, a fellow football junkie, said as we were discussing this last night.
I do too—except there’s no explanation that can possibly make any sense.
I’m simply astonished how often people forget that human institutions—schools, churches, banks, football teams—are supposed to serve people, rather than the other way around. And that arrogance and corruption inevitably surrounds those who become ensconced in positions of unchecked power.
Penn State has had more than a decade to get this one right, and they still can’t sort it out. So the issue for me is not whether Joe Paterno should be on the sideline—that’s obvious. It’s whether Penn State should be inviting 107,000 people into its stadium to cheer for its football team Saturday.