Many people have already made up their minds about the actions, and inaction, of Paterno and other Penn State officials with regard to Jerry Sandusky. But, as you read this column or “Paterno,” Joe Posnanski’s new book on Paterno’s life, I urge you to keep an open mind.
Throughout the Sandusky scandal, I have cautioned that we should wait for the facts and not rush to judgment regarding Penn State’s role in this scandal. In “Paterno,” Posnanski quotes these lines from the novel “The Ox-Bow Incident”: “We desire justice. And justice has never been obtained in haste and strong feeling.”
To say there are strong feelings about the Sandusky scandal is a gross understatement. But in the haste to assess blame, I fear that justice has fallen by the wayside.
When I mention justice, I’m not referring to Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator who used his Second Mile charity and Penn State football connections to get close to boys so he could sexually abuse them. He’s had his day in court. And I’m not certain there can ever be appropriate justice for what he’s done to his victims.
The justice I’m referring to is a fair evaluation of the Penn State officials singled out in the Freeh Report. In particular, I’m referring to Joe Paterno.
Judging by the reaction to Posnanski’s book from some quarters (Bob Costas read excerpts of some scathing reviews to Posnanski on “Costas” on Wednesday night), many people don’t want to read anything that contradicts what they’ve already determined is the truth.
But what if the public narrative isn’t the truth? Do you care? I hope you do.
In one particularly gripping scene in “Paterno,” the legendary coach, at the urging of his family, has just read through the grand jury report on Sandusky. When his children make Paterno aware that many people believe he knew exactly what Sandusky was doing and covered it up, Paterno responds, “How could they think that? (Nobody answers)They really think that if I knew someone was hurting kids, I wouldn’t stop it? (Nobody answers) Don’t they know me? Don’t they know what my life has been about?”
I’m not attempting to absolve Paterno of all responsibility. But, whenever I hear someone declare that Paterno knew Sandusky was raping boys and chose to look the other way, I ask a similar question to the one Paterno asked his family last November: Do you really believe that if he knew Sandusky was abusing kids, he wouldn’t stop it?
To hear that he asked that question himself confirms for me that Paterno didn’t know Sandusky was abusing boys. Unless, of course, you’re cynical enough to believe that Paterno was putting on a show for Posnanski. Even I’m not that cynical.
For those who don’t know, Posnanski stationed himself in State College to write a book on Paterno’s life, long before the Sandusky allegations became public. When Sandusky was indicted, Posnanski found himself on the 50-yard line, with a press pass to the locker room, for a legend’s fall from grace.
For those interested in reading “Paterno,” be forewarned. The book isn’t about the Sandusky scandal. The book is about Joe Paterno’s life. Obviously, the manner in which the Sandusky indictment affects the way Paterno is viewed is the enormous elephant in the room.
But “Paterno” is not an expose. It’s a profile of a man’s life, including the tragic final chapter.
Posnanski’s presence further convinces me that Paterno did not participate in a coverup. If Paterno was involved in a coverup of Sandusky’s actions, why would he continue to grant Posnanski access after articles about the grand jury investigation appeared in newspapers? Why did Paterno and his family continue to give Posnanski access to Paterno’s notes and files? These hardly seem like the actions of a man with something to hide.
Posnasnki’s book also highlights the contentious relationship between Paterno and Sandusky. As I’ve noted before, Sandusky barely mentions Paterno in his book “Touched.” When Sandusky retired, Paterno issued a statement, but was, as Posnanski puts it, “conspicuous by his absence” from his former defensive coordinator’s retirement celebrations.
As we’ve learned – it’s even in the Freeh Report – Paterno informed Sandusky that he would not succeed him as Penn State’s head coach before the 1998 shower incident took place. Paterno tells Posnanski that he wanted to fire Sandusky, but that he felt Sandusky was too popular with the community and alumni. Ironically, one of the reasons Paterno wanted to fire Sandusky was that he felt the time he spent working with The Second Mile was causing him to neglect his coaching duties.
So what could have been Paterno’s motive to protect Sandusky? As Costas pointed out during Wednesday’s interview, Paterno’s self-interest would have been better served by turning Sandusky over to authorities. If anything, turning Sandsuky in to police may have enhanced Paterno’s reputation.
After reading Posnanski’s book, I am more convinced than ever that Paterno didn’t know what Sandusky was doing.
Should he have been more vigilant about following up with athletic director Tim Curley? Of course. Even if Mike McQueary didn’t fully explain what he thought took place in the showers of the Lasch Building on that fateful Friday night, should Paterno have inquired about the boy involved? Absolutely.
Paterno failed in this situation. He admitted that, in hindsight, he wished he had done more. But that’s a far cry from protecting a sexual predator.
Joe Paterno wasn’t perfect. That’s made very clear in “Paterno.” Posnanski details some of Paterno’s more unpleasant traits, which serve as balance for the numerous stories about his altruism and positive effect on so many people. But, with few exceptions, Posnanski refrains from offering his own opinion on Paterno. He has said he leaves that evaluation up to the reader.
I’ve read “Paterno,” as well as the Freeh Report. My conclusion is that Paterno did not know about Sandusky’s abuse of boys or participate in a coverup.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Read the book yourself. Keep an open mind.
Paterno died in January, before Posnanski’s book was finished. Posnanski says Paterno’s only instructions were to “find the truth” and “write the truth.”
The NCAA didn’t wait for the truth. It didn’t even look for it. It jumped on the conclusions of the Freeh Report and quickly handed down draconian sanctions. The NCAA didn’t wait to “hear from the defense,” as Costas put it, before imposing sanctions.
We won’t hear more from Paterno, but the defense has started to speak up. Former Penn State president Graham Spanier and his lawyers spoke out about the problems with the Freeh Report a few weeks ago. We’re likely to hear from Curley and former senior vice president Gary Schultz at their trial in January – if their trial ever takes place.
A group of past chairs of the Penn State Faculty Senate weighed in this week, criticizing the NCAA’s “consent decree,” particularly the section that says the Penn State culture placed the football program “in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human decency.” This diverse group of professors denies there was any lack of institutional control and points out that the NCAA based its sanctions upon the Freeh Report, which “adds layers of conjecture and supposition (to a foundation of scant evidence) to create a portrait of fault, complicity, and malfeasance that could well be at odds with the truth.”
There’s that darn word again: truth. Does anyone, including the Penn State Board of Trustees, care about truth and justice, or are they simply acceptable casualties, along with the reputations of respected individuals and an entire university, in the interest of hastily “moving forward” and putting the Sandusky scandal in everyone’s rearview mirror?