The fact that he is who he is, and that he did what he did, makes it even worse than it already is.
For most of us who are not in western Pennsylvania, this came out of the blue last week: a grand jury indicted a former Penn State University football coach on accusations he sexually assaulted young boys. When I first saw the story in the paper last weekend, and read that head coach Joe Paterno had been told by an eyewitness that Jerry Sandusky assaulted a young boy in the shower and Paterno had relayed the information to his immediate superior but done nothing else about it, I felt like he should have done more. But then I turned the page, because I don’t care about college football or Penn State, and because I didn’t want to really think about what was actually going on here. Shame on me.
By Wednesday, the winningest coach in major college football history had been fired by his university, but he was not the only person in Happy Valley shamed by the incident. Far from it. More’s the pity.
Sandusky, the long-time Penn State assistant coach who gets a lot of the credit for the team’s history of turning out great defensive players—especially linebackers—stands accused of being a serial pedophile, of sexually assaulting at least eight boys over a 15 year period. He also founded a charitable organization called The Second Mile in 1997, which provided services to children in need.
One of the saddest ironies of the sexual abuse charges against Sandusky that stunned and sickened the nation last weekend is that if the allegations that he assaulted eight boys over a 15-year period are true, he may have been allowed to prey on those children in large part because no one at Penn State would go that second mile for his victims.
Sports Illustrated’s Phil Taylor is one of many who’ve made the point: where the hell were all the adults at Penn State who should have done something about this? I’ll tell you where—they were all busy protecting a wealthy university and its vaunted football program and its reputation, for surely those things were more important than the lives, and the futures, of pre-teenaged children whose parents had turned to Penn State for help. What is Sandusky accused of doing? McClatchy summarizes the timeline here, and it shows just how many people at Penn State didn’t stand up for these kids.
Sandusky was cashed out as the team’s defensive coordinator after admitting to having showered with a 10 year old boy, but the school and the coach only took his job away—Sandusky was allowed to keep using university facilities for his charity’s activities.
In 2000 a janitor saw Sandusky having sex with a young boy in a campus football building and told his supervisor, but neither of them called the police.
In 2002 a graduate assistant (a former player; a grown man) saw Sandusky having sex with a young boy and did not do anything to stop the assault that was going on right in front of his eyes; he did not call the police, not even the university police; he went home and called his own father and asked what he should do; and it wasn’t until the next day that he told Paterno what he’d seen. Paterno told the athletic director, and left it at that. About this time, school officials told Sandusky not to bring children to the campus any more, although he himself still used the facilities.
Paterno made a lot of his reputation for insisting that Penn State was different from other big college football programs, that Penn State did things the right way—it followed the rules, it graduated its student athletes, and it was successful on the field. Bull. Despite the high graduation rate and the championships and the bowl games, we now know that Penn State was just as sleazy as any other program. Maybe more so. Ohio State’s in trouble for its players selling equipment to get discounts on their tattoos; Miami is in trouble (again) over impermissible benefits given to players by a booster. But no one else is in the news for making the conscious decision to protect their own ass by turning a blind eye to the alleged child rapist in their midst. For years.
Where was the “Hey, you can’t do that” reaction the first time someone saw this man naked with a child? Where was the unconscious and visceral “stop that” response? Where was the call to the cops? Where is the humanity?
Yesterday, Penn State played its first football game in the post-Paterno era. It lost the game. But the university community may have taken the first baby steps to recognizing what’s important in life, certainly more important than a university’s bruised ego or loss of financial support.
"It felt like we all banded together. And it wasn’t just about football," said Melissa Basinger, a 2005 Penn State grad who made the trip from Charlotte, N.C. "It was about coming together as a school, and showing the country, world or whatever that this does not define who we are."