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In defense of Joe Paterno

From Robert Lindsay, Renton, WA:

In your review of "The King of Devil's Island," you give the following assessment:

"Brathen evades replying, and seems to sense that the governor is reluctant to know the true answer to his question, because he doesn't want a scandal to threaten the school's sources of funding (mostly from the church). Here is an incident from history that seems to reflect Penn State coach Joe Paterno's reluctance to look too deeply into stories he heard about Jerry Sandusky."

Sorry, but as a Penn State graduate, I have to respond to this. The media is assuming that Joe Paterno kept quiet about the Jerry Sandusky matter because he wanted to protect the Penn State football program, no matter what.

But Paterno has always held his football program to a strict moral code, and he has always enforced that code, even at the expense of his own team's success. (This is a coach who, when I was at Penn State, benched his starting quarterback for two games because the guy was acting like a prima donna. A few years ago, he sentenced his entire team to "community service" -- cleaning up the stadiums after home games -- after a couple of players got into an off-campus fight.)

To those of us who know JoePa, it makes no sense that he would have intentionally dropped his moral code in one instance -- and then returned to enforcing it.

Paterno's downfall is centered on the 2002 incident with Sandusky in the Penn State locker room, which was reported to him by Coach Mike McQuery. Paterno reported the incident to Penn State officials, but he failed to follow up on it when they didn't pursue an investigation against Sandusky. His shame is that he didn't do more.

But the media is "under-reporting" several facts about this incident:

1: At the time of the incident, Sandusky was officially retired from coaching at Penn State. He was no longer an employee of the Penn State football program. Therefore, Paterno had no authority to take direct action against him.

2: Paterno was required by Pennsylvania state law to report the incident through his employers. Therefore, he may have felt that his hands were tied once he reported the incident.

3: Paterno reported the incident to two Penn State officials who were the heads of the campus police -- which is a legitimate, certified police organization. It was not Paterno's fault that the two officials failed to report the incident to the campus police afterwards.

In his "Washington Post" interview (link below), Paterno tells us he realizes now that he should have done more but “I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way.”

Understand, Paterno is a man who has spent the last 60 years in State College, PA, which, believe me, is a very isolated community in central Pennsylvania. He has devoted his entire life to the Penn State football program and the university -- to the extent that he has "tunnel vision" and has rarely concentrated on anything else. (It's reported that he doesn't even watch TV.)

Paterno has spent his entire life around college football players, coaches, and university officials. He is not a high school principal who should know the procedures for reporting suspected sexual abuse. As he says in the interview, the Sandusky incident was so far outside his experience that he didn't know how to handle it.

Yes, he could have (and should have) called the police about the Sandusky incident. But when you've played by a certain "book" your entire life, as he has, you can sometimes have uncertainty and lapses in judgement about how to handle something that is "outside the book" of your understanding.

Did Paterno have a failure of leadership? Yes, he did! Should he have followed up and taken further action over the report of Sandusky's behavior? Absolutely! Does he bear some responsibility for this scandal? Yes, he does. Paterno understands that now, and deeply regrets his lack of action.

But it's unfair to suggest that Paterno failed to act because he was trying to protect the football program at all costs. If he were that kind of coach, Paterno never would have reported the incident in the first place. He would have ordered McQuery to keep quiet about the incident, so as not to hurt the program.

But Paterno reported the incident, knowing (or at least thinking) that there would be a proper investigation, and that if the allegations were true, Sandusky would probably be arrested.

Among Penn State grads, we believe that Paterno had a failure of leadership, not a moral lapse. We see JoePa as a good man who made a mistake, not someone who sacrificed his morals in favor of football. (He has never done that.) Our vision may be "tainted by association," but JoePa has done so much for our university through the years, not just with the football program. We feel it's unfair to judge his entire career by this one unfortunate mistake. (We feel more anger towards the Penn State administration, who covered up the Sandusky matter for years, and then made JoePa the scapegoat for it.)

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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