Penn State University very quietly announced on Thursday that it will be honoring the fiftieth anniversary of Joe Paterno’s first game as the school’s head football coach with a ceremony at their September 17th home matchup with Temple. Given the school’s reluctance to re-erect Paterno’s famous statue outside of Beaver Stadium, the plan to honor him game could be seen as an attempt to appease hardcore Paterno supporters who have long argued for bringing the statue back.
It’s still too much commemoration for Paterno.
Paterno supporters consistently point to the former coach’s positive achievements, and there’s no arguing that many exist. He was an avid donor to various Penn State departments and regularly posted some of the best academic achievement ratings and graduation rates among Division 1 football teams. It’s true that philanthropy was a large part of Paterno’s life, and this fact should not be forgotten. Combine his humanitarian efforts, first-rate coaching ability, and extended tenure of employment at the school, and it’s easy to see why he is so admired in the Penn State community.
But should that success overshadow the fact that forty years ago, Paterno was informed of an experience that suggested Jerry Sandusky was a sexual abuser? Or that former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who lead an investigation into the Sandusky episode, found this on Paterno’s involvement in the scandal: “The Freeh investigation suggests that the university’s senior administrators — then-president Graham B. Spanier, Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz [Curley was formerly PSU’s Vice President, and Schultz was formerly the Athletic Director] — were prepared to formally report Mr. Sandusky to state authorities, but that Mr. Paterno persuaded them to do otherwise.”
In other words, Paterno allegedly convinced the other administrators to keep quiet. He valued the football team’s reputation over the blatantly illegal and horrific actions of Sandusky. Penn State’s football culture, and not the lives of sex abuse victims, took precedence in this situation. Here’s another finding from the Freeh Report, as quoted from the previously linked New York Times article: “In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, [the most powerful leaders of Penn State] repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the board of trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large.”
Bad publicity. So Penn State, which was at that point one of the most successful football programs in the country, was more concerned with bad publicity than stopping an alleged sex offender. Penn State’s football culture was more valuable to Paterno and the school’s top administrators; is that right? Or is it right that it was brought to his attention that a sexual assault incident was perpetrated by Sandusky, but Paterno waited almost a full week to report to his superiors because “it was a Saturday morning and I didn’t want to interfere with their weekends”? Technically, Paterno did eventually notify his boss about the incident… but shouldn’t something as serious as sexual assault be more important than having the weekend off?
At the end of the day, Penn State fans love Paterno because he catapulted them into the classification of elite college football programs and brought the school’s team to the forefront of the national discussion. His success in building the Nittany Lions into a football powerhouse created a culture surrounding Penn State where students, alumni, and fans revere Paterno and the football team. And that’s okay in most situations; PSU is a football school, and Paterno did a lot to make that happen. They wouldn’t have been as successful if he wasn’t the coach, and that shouldn’t be forgotten. But at some point, other things need to be prioritized over football and football culture. Paterno did a lot of great things, but bad actions can make good actions almost negligible. Just because JoePa did a lot of good for Penn State doesn’t mean he should still be venerated as a hero. The exact “blind reverence” of PSU’s football culture that led Paterno and administrators to originally waver in reporting Sandusky to authorities is the same reverence still displayed in public outcry to honor JoePa. Doing what’s right, especially when it concerns a matter as serious as sexual assault, needs to take precedence over preserving or honoring a successful football program. Should Penn State really commend someone who couldn’t take that important step?
Some are already working to change Penn State’s culture, but a large majority are still too blinded by Paterno’s success to realize that good people can do bad things. I’m not just talking about Penn State; things need to change at football schools across the country. I don’t want my home state honoring a person who didn’t do everything he could to stop the sexual molestation of children, and it’s time others stop their blind support of Joe Paterno.