Paternaround: JoePa's tarnished legacy

9:07 AM, Jul 17, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Joe Paterno apologists, I used to be one of you. Not only did I revere the football coach from a distance, I idolized the makings of his "Grand Experiment," his morality over money moniker that made him appear so authentic and so grandfatherly.

I shook his hand. I talked to him a good bit about a book I was writing -- a historical tale that intertwined Penn State's and the football program's legacies. In so many ways, it was a story of his travels from Brooklyn born and Ivy League bred to Penn State forever. He signed two footballs as part of a silent auction I was holding as a memorial for my late uncle, including a handwritten note scribbled on football letterhead that read, "Hope this helps. Best, Joe."

I speak of this tangible relationship not to puff out my chest at the smallest morsel of access into his life, but to lay the foundation for the boom that's about to drop. You see Joe-pologists, I was one of you, reverting back to memories from my childhood, Saturday afternoons in the fall, fleeting recollections of his raspy voice and Coke-bottle glasses every time I was faced with another shred of evidence.

This isn't Joe. He's a humanitarian. He was from a different time, uncomfortable in the thoughts of the "Tickle Monster" and a young boy's bottom making, to use a grand jury phrase, "slapping sounds in the shower." He backed away. He was let down by those he trusted.

And then I woke up. And I suggest you do the same.

I'm all for the benefit of the doubt -- but he left town with the Freeh Report's damning findings that provided some new adjectives and context to Paterno's name.

Liar. Manipulator. Leader of men alright, three others to be exact, who didn't give a single thought to the futures of disadvantaged boys because they were too worried about themselves, the football team and Penn State's image.

I'm all for forgiveness and the understanding that everyone makes mistakes. I've made mine as I'm sure you've made yours. But Joe Paterno didn't make one mistake. Or two, or ten.

He made a mistake every day for the 11 years that he indirectly allowed a serial pedophile to prance around campus and stalk his prey before using the showers in Joe's kingdom to reign terror on children who couldn't fight back, wrestling with them, blowing on their stomachs, and for those who didn't relent, destroying their lives for countless years to come.

Forgiveness comes to those who repent, but Paterno, to his last dying breath, told a Grand Jury, a handpicked interviewer named Sally Jenkins and anyone who would listen that he had no knowledge of a 1998 investigation into the sexual perversions of Jerry Sandusky.

He did.

Paterno spent his last days telling Jenkins that he told his "boss," athletic director Tim Curley, about then graduate assistant Mike McQueary's soul- crippling discovery of Sandusky conveniently placed behind a young boy's backside then backed away, because in his words, "I didn't know exactly how to handle it."

He did know what to do. Any sane, responsible human being would know what to do. Call child welfare and get that sick pervert off the streets. Instead, Paterno just passed the buck, a discovery that prompted his new favorite PR line: "With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

No kidding. But it doesn't stop there.

His family's attorney team, led by Wick Sollers, has been a fast-cranking PR machine for weeks, throwing out powerful words two days before the Freeh Report's release about "email leaks" and "fairness." Then, just in case those didn't land, a letter supposedly written by Paterno to his former players in the month before his death magically found legs, hopped a bus and landed at the feet of multiple media outlets.

"This wasn't a football scandal," it bellowed. In the simplest terms, that declaration was accurate. None of the former letter-winners were, to our best estimation, privy to this massacre or assisted in its deception. But honestly, this scandal had everything to do with the university's football culture, one in which I have been an active participant since I was old enough to walk.

Parts of the letter made perfect sense -- Penn State has always been a world- class institution, and always will be. LaVar Arrington and Chuck Fusina's accomplishments shouldn't be minimalized by this horrible tragedy.

Yet, time and time again, statements of defiance and self-preservation tore at those statements of healing. The letter wasn't about moving forward at all, instead one final plea to never forget the past.

And in the author's case, the past meant him and his legacy. It was and has always been about him and his legacy at its core.

Emails painted a picture that few wanted to admit, but make perfect sense if you have even the slightest knowledge of how Penn State operated, or honestly, a little common sense. Paterno knew about the 1998 investigation, just as many assumed in their heart of hearts he did. He actively followed it and was briefed by Curley on its status throughout. Sandusky wasn't charged with a crime, but in the context of McQueary's account in 2001, Paterno and Penn State's powers that be should have used the investigation as a warning sign that perhaps this was much more than a creepy old man with boundary issues.

And even if they weren't sure, the safest, surest bet for the continued welfare of children was to report the incident to authorities and let them do their jobs. Instead, Penn State gave Sandusky the benefit of the doubt because, in Spanier's own typewritten funeral sentence, it was the "humane" thing to do.

That humane intention allowed countless more boys to fall victim to Sandusky's manipulation and physical abuse. That isn't to say that Spanier, Paterno, et al. actively protected a pedophile, but when does "willful ignorance" cross past the point of ignorance and into willful, whether it be to the criminal's benefit first and foremost or not.

Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley didn't care about Jerry Sandusky. They weren't trying to protect him. They didn't fell sorry for him. They were willfully protecting themselves from a chink in the moral, ethical fortress of perception they had built. And in the end, is there really that big of a difference between self-preservation and protection of a pedophile when children's welfare is at stake?

I will always contend that once they let Sandusky slide in 2001, he had them by the Lion's tail. It snowballed through the years to the point where it could never be reported. The stakes got higher and more costly with each day child welfare wasn't contacted, and soon it became silence at all costs.

One of the biggest scandals in the history of a major university didn't start as a cover-up, otherwise Paterno wouldn't have told a soul. The university's culture of reverence to the "Joe Knows" style of thinking never intended to cloak a master manipulator and child predator.

It just happened that way because four seemingly well-educated, moralistic men convinced themselves it wasn't as bad as they feared, the portrait wasn't as heinous as a worst case scenario painted, and that they could micro-manage the situation themselves and all would be right in Joe's kingdom.

It didn't turn out that way. And now they all must pay. And by "all" I mean the three men still living and the legacy of the man who was responsible for the growth of a Central Pennsylvania cow college into a world-class institution.

Joe Paterno did many great things in his life. And to my grave, I will contend his "Grand Experiment" was genuine, his desire to hold academics and athletics in tandem was sincere. Somewhere, the mystic, the stature created a power so big, so vast and so dangerous that it crumbled the very moral foundation that built it.

No one should care about a statue. Facebook groups that yearn for the "Statue to Stay" just highlight the university's out-of-touch, Joe-is-God philosophy that helped indirectly form a bubble of secrecy around the University Park campus.

No one should care about ice cream flavors or library wings. If they stay, they will be a consistent reminder of the man and this scandal. If they vanish, they will be a consistent reminder of the man and a fallen legacy.

Either way, Joe Paterno's "Grand Experiment" worked like a charm until it was tested. And then it failed, leaving a battered and defeated university in its wake.

Penn State will move on. It is an innovative, research-leading university with lofty goals and dreams. It will recover, in time, and people will have their own memories of Paterno and his place in their minds.

There is nothing wrong with that. I will remember the good, but always understand that it can't overshadow the bad.

Meet me there. Help Penn State move on, not necessarily by wiping the past from your mind, but by accepting its evils, learning from its mistakes and creating a bigger, better university.

One that doesn't put football over children. And one that moves past the ideals of Joe Paterno.

The Sports Network

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