Of all the possible exits for Joe Paterno as the head football coach at Penn State University, the one that came about last week could never have been envisioned.
Paterno, the architect of perhaps the most-envied college football program in the country for the last half century, was fired, not because of what he had done — how could that have happened? — but because of what he left undone: Paterno, 84 years old, steps offstage sullied beyond repair, accused of standing idly while a former assistant football coach allegedly sodomized young boys not once or twice, but repeatedly and brazenly for a decade and a half.
In an age when forgiveness is dispensed like coupons, don’t expect much for JoePa, at least beyond Penn State’s now hauntingly named Happy Valley home.
It no longer matters that Paterno, whose teams compiled a record of 409-136-3, is college football’s all-time winningnest coach, a milestone acheived without a sniff of NCAA scandal. The Nittany Lions’ two national championships no longer merit celebration. That four of five of Paterno’s players earned their degrees will provoke no more than a shrug. And the millions and millions of dollars that Paterno steered to the university, some of it his own, that did noble work? Big deal.
Paterno stands accused of not pushing hard enough when Jerry Sandusky, who had left the team in 1999 after decades as its defensive coordinator, was allegedly seen raping a boy believed to be no more than 10 years old in a shower in an on-campus football facility. Paterno told his boss, the athletic director, but the police were never contacted, and up until about two weeks ago, Sandusky, who ran a foundation he created — ostensibly at least — to help troubled children, still had access to PSU facilities.
That was the case even though an investigation of Sandusky, one that required Paterno to testify under oath, was by then 3 years old, which means what once had been whispered talk about Sandusky had been elevated to water-cooler conversation. Yet neither Paterno, nor the university, erected a do-not-enter sign.
Only after Sandusky was charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse of eight young boys did heads begin to roll — and the indignation began to bubble. It is reaching a crescendo, with calls that so far have gone unheeded that the Nittany Lions not take the field again this season. The accusation du jour, that all was well as long as Penn State was winning football games, is cliched, but difficult to rebut.
We began today’s Our View unlike others in that we didn’t know where it would end; we did feel an obligation that something so consequential and depraved was deserving of a grand finish, a word or a few to stamp this communal abdication with some sort of sense.
But at that we have failed — appropriately, perhaps, because this is a story about failure, by dozens, no, make that hundreds of people plus Paterno who didn’t meet a moral obligation, and allowed the most vulnerable among us to be brutalized in the most horrific way and for the longest of time.