Outside of dictators, living people usually don’t get statues put up in their honor. Joe Paterno wasn’t a dictator; he was a demigod.
Penn State unveiled a statute of the legendary football coach outside its stadium in 2001, the same year, as it happens, that former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky was seen by an assistant coach raping a child in a locker-room facility. A scorching report led by former FBI director Louis Freeh into the Sandusky scandal found a “total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.”
The beloved JoePa included. Everything they say about Paterno — who passed away this year shortly after getting fired — may be true: a gentleman, a coach who cared about the moral education of his athletes and saw that they graduated at impressive rates, a philanthropist and community leader. But he evidently valued the reputation of his program and the interests of his friend Sandusky more than he did stopping the former coach’s predations, leading to a hideous corruption that is the shame of Penn State.
The school removed the 900-pound Paterno statue over the weekend, carting it away with a tarp over top of it as if the representation of JoePa — forefinger pointed in the air in victory — were doing a perp walk. Penn State should melt it down into bronze millstones, for use the next time it is confronted with a monster like Sandusky. The NCAA has severely sanctioned the school, fining it $60 million, limiting its scholarships, officially stripping it of victories since 1998, and banning it from bowl competition.
It stopped short of the “death penalty” of suspending the football program altogether. Penn State should have undertaken that act of penance itself in recognition of how it had let its omnipotent football program twist and taint its administration. But false idols die hard.
In 1998, a boy’s mother reported to police that Sandusky had showered with her son in a Penn State facility. An investigation began that Penn State officials were eager to see go away. It was inconclusive, and Sandusky — then still an active coach — got a generous retirement package. At the last minute, he was kept on for the 1999 season. He brought a boy to the 1999 Alamo Bowl and assaulted him at the team hotel.
By giving Sandusky access to Penn State facilities in retirement, the Freeh report writes, school officials “empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims.” It didn’t even matter if people saw Sandusky commit assaults. A janitor saw him in November 2000, but didn’t report it for fear “they’ll get rid of all of us.” Assistant coach Mike McQueary saw him in February 2001 and reported it to Paterno, who worked with other school officials to handle the incident as ineffectually as possible. In August 2001, Sandusky assaulted another boy in the shower.
The Freeh report concludes that Paterno and the others “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the University’s Board of Trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large.” They looked the other way from unspeakable crimes involving the football program that was the pride of the university.
The NCAA sanctions will likely prove devastating to Nittany Lions football. We’ll see how devoted everyone at Penn State really is to standards over winning, the ethic that was supposed to animate the school and make it so different. Will fans fill the 106,000-seat coliseum to root on a perpetual loser? Will alumni stay as excited and involved when the team is the dregs of the Big Ten? Will first-rate student-athletes show up for the sheer joy of the game and a good education?
“We Are Penn State!” is the rallying cry of the school. The sooner that chant has nothing to do with football, the better.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]. © King Features Syndicate