Why My Critics Are Wrong
Joe Paterno’s status as a moral beacon remains undiminished.

Joe Paterno on the Penn State sidelines in Orlando, Fla., January 10, 2010


Even the board of trustees at Penn State squeezed their own feeling of this sort into the public accusation of Joe Paterno they made in the New York Times (January 18, 2012). Yet they pointed to no law broken, nor rule of the university (ultimately set by the trustees), nor criterion, nor precedent. They just made up a retroactive rule, which they did not apply to themselves.

As for public opinion, it is too easy for many to be swept up in a moral witch hunt seeking someone on whom to affix blame.

Nonetheless, because accusers persist, let me expose some facts that may help some of my critics see how wrongheaded their accusations are. Consider the chief allegation made against Coach Paterno. Yes, his accusers admit, Joe did his legal and his public duty, as the grand jury specifically said in November 2011.

But Paterno, his moral judges insist, did not fulfill his moral responsibility. From the point of view of the damaged young boys, Paterno should have put a stop to it. (He didn’t even know about the vast bulk of it.) Yes, he, among oh! so few, did something effective about what he did know, even if he knew it only secondhand. Patently, his human judges say, he committed a grave sin of omission. He should have done more.

Worst of all, these judges say, that moral fault wipes out all the good Paterno had done before. Taints everything about him. Soils his moral reputation forever. The Reverend Hyde’s Damien the Leper.

Imagine Paterno’s wife, Sue, reading these awful charges. These are very heavy weights to tie around her man’s ankles as you drop him into the sea.

Someone really should look at some basic facts, the ones now known. Other facts will become known in due course.

(1) What exactly did graduate assistant Mike McQueary, the eyewitness, tell Paterno, that so alarmed Joe that he reported a potential felony accusation to the authorities with jurisdiction in the matter?

In the 1970s, the respected central-Pennsylvania journalist Ken Werley, author of Joe Paterno, Penn State and College Football (2001), sometimes accompanied the team to away games and on many occasions attended Paterno’s Friday-night bull sessions with the press. From 1970 on, he saw a lot of Paterno in private and in public. One thing he marveled at in a recent article: “In all of those times I never once heard Joe tell a ‘dirty story’ and even more telling, I never once heard a ‘dirty story’ told in his presence. He commanded that kind of respect.”

Later, Werley goes on: At the grand-jury hearings of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, Curley’s attorney “hammered” Mike McQueary about his testimony. How can it be that after witnessing this horrific “thing” involving Jerry Sandusky and a young boy, all McQueary told Joe was that he “witnessed something, and it was way over the line.” The attorney spoke these words with scorn. She couldn’t believe that that was all he said to Joe Paterno. To which McQueary replied, “You obviously don’t know Joe Paterno.”

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, and know its serious Catholic culture very well. (There are also unserious Catholic cultures there: Western Pennsylvania is an earthy, vulgar, and crude place. Sit in parts of the bleachers during a Steelers game.) But some families I know were like the Paternos. Some kinds of sex were not even imagined, and certainly (if anyone learned of them) not speakable.

This was not out of prudishness. In our families there were lots of children and lots of sex. But there are some things so private and sacred you didn’t speak of them. I imagine Joe and Sue Paterno’s families were like my parents’ families. By contrast, sophisticated urban people, who know all about homosexuality and male rape, surely find it hard to believe that Joe Paterno did not speak about such things, and that he could hardly imagine what such acts as male rape actually consisted in. “Way over the line” would be quite enough detail for him. It would signify something serious enough that it must be reported according to the procedures set out by law and, on campus, also by the university, under agreement with local public institutions. For Paterno, the immediate jurisdiction for the law was the university police, a force of almost 50 uniformed officers, under their own chief of police, who by a state statute have the same legal authority as the local police. Some had even had the training to act as a SWAT team, others to act as riot police. They also employ 200 students as auxiliary officers and escorts.