Politics & Policy

Why My Critics Are Wrong

Joe Paterno on the Penn State sidelines in Orlando, Fla., January 10, 2010
Joe Paterno’s status as a moral beacon remains undiminished.

The many critics of my article on Joe Paterno proved that some people in our culture, thank God, have not become “non-judgmental.” Some still have a robust moral sense. Same for most sportswriters I have read or heard, who seem to have taken the same tack as my critics, impugning as with one voice Joe Paterno’s moral legacy. At the same time, this readiness to diminish the classic greatness of Joe Paterno’s moral responsibility exposes the dangers at the opposite extreme.

My critics are correct on one small point: I did choose not to assess whether Coach Paterno was guilty of moral fault. Any such assessment is morally corrupting, and for four reasons. First, Americans react with horror to anything smacking of child abuse, and properly so. But we have recently experienced massive rushes to judgment that turned out to have been calumnious. We have seen psychologists in court misuse “repressed memories” to falsely accuse child-care providers of molesting tots over a long period of time. What an agony for those falsely accused — and later acquitted, too late to get their reputations wholly cleansed. 

#ad#Second, we all went through the press stampede to condemn the young men of the lacrosse team at Duke for a deed they did not commit. It took months for the courts to vindicate these men’s innocence. Lesson: Those who falsely accuse athletes frequently go unchallenged for a very long time.

Third, just after my column appeared, my brother sent me Robert Louis Stevenson’s acrid rebuke to the Reverend Hyde, who brandished in a public letter a string of unproven allegations of moral sins by Damien the Leper, who had volunteered to live his whole life on an isolated island, to care alone for lepers avoided by the whole rest of the world. Stevenson had publicly praised Damien’s moral greatness.

Stevenson chose neither to deny nor to argue against Hyde’s allegations. Even if all these accusations are correct in every detail, Stevenson retorted, such was the moral greatness of Damien’s self-sacrifice that retailing his sins in public merely diminished the moral standing of those who did so, including the insufferable Reverend Hyde:

I will suppose — and God forgive me for supposing it — that Damien faltered and stumbled in his narrow path of duty; I will suppose that, in the horror of his isolation, perhaps in the fever of incipient disease, he, who was doing so much more than he had sworn, failed in the letter of his priestly oath — he, who was so much a better man than either you or me, who did what we have never dreamed of daring — he too tasted of our common frailty. “O, Iago, the pity of it!” The least tender should be moved to tears; the most incredulous to prayer. And all that you could do was to pen your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage! [Who published it.]

Is it growing at all clear to you what a picture you have drawn of your own heart? I will try yet once again to make it clearer. You had a father: suppose this tale were about him, and some informant brought it to you, proof in hand: I am not making too high an estimate of your emotional maturity when I suppose you would regret the circumstance? That you would feel the tale of frailty the more keenly since it shamed the author of your days? And that the last thing you would do would be to publish it in the religious press? Well, the man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father . . . and he was your father too, if God had given you grace to see it.

Fourth, the forum for defending moral innocence lies before God alone, who reads all consciences limpidly. And into that forum no other of us has a right to intrude. By contrast, a public forum for “moral responsibility” does not exist. There is no court for it. There are no rules for it. But the so-called court of public opinion does exist, and as far as I can detect, its function is to squeeze from the amorphous feeling “somebody should have done more to stop this” (because such things shouldn’t happen amongst human beings, even though they actually do occur in monstrously disturbing numbers throughout the country) — its function is to squeeze this feeling into an accusation against somebody.

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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.

#ad#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.

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(2) Note this, too: Back in 1999, Joe Paterno had already let assistant coach Sandusky know that he had no intention of recommending him to be his successor as head coach. Sandusky was spending more and more time on his new initiative for at-risk youngsters, The Second Mile (located in another town about 35 miles away), and less time on coaching. Sandusky couldn’t do justice to both. He must choose.

It was only fair for Paterno to tell Sandusky this, so that Sandusky would not count on becoming head coach, but could plan out what to do with his last few years before retirement. In addition, Paterno insists he had no inkling in 1999 of Sandusky’s alleged crimes. The choice he presented to Sandusky had nothing to do with that sort of thing.

#ad#Sandusky’s next step confirms Paterno’s account. Without any fear of suspicion, Sandusky left football and chose to negotiate with the university for designation as emeritus professor, with the privilege of using university facilities such as the library, pool, gym, and showers. As of 1999, he was no longer under Coach Paterno’s authority, but that of the university athletic director. Ultimately, the board of trustees should have had to approve this, probably bundled in a long list of other appointments.

Coach Paterno had known Jerry Sandusky as a good man, admirable in his conduct with the football team. Not only by the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” but also by his own experience, Paterno must have been slow to believe that Sandusky was guilty of what his young graduate assistant had reported.

Still, Paterno had a duty to report it. Sandusky’s alleged actions could constitute a serious felony, and he needed to be stopped. Some may feel confident they know that Paterno had to go directly to police outside the university. But that was not proper procedure in the law.

Some today also mentally link what McQueary reported to many other molestations that neither he nor any member of the public knew of at that time. They forget, too, that what Paterno reported is not what Paterno himself had seen, but what his assistant told him he saw. It was secondhand.

The report of the grand jury released in November 2011 revealed matters on Sandusky previously unknown to the community. Not even the many immediate victims knew of the other victims.

The authorities who have first jurisdiction over the university showers are the university police. And Paterno took Mike McQueary’s report to the university vice president with authority over the university police, Gary Schultz, as well as the athletic director, Tim Curley, as backup.

Considering all that those two knew at that time, the grand jury indicted Schultz and Curley for not doing their duty to the truth. They judged that Paterno did do his duty. Paterno’s report played a role in Sandusky’s indictment, and placed in the hands of two other close colleagues a serious responsibility that resulted in their indictment on related matters. If you know the loyalty of Joe Paterno to his associates, you know the gut-wrench that call cost him.

(3) If I dare to ask myself what I would have done in Joe Paterno’s shoes, now after a lot more is known, I guess I would imagine myself doing something extra-heroic, such as a back-up call to the police of the town of State College, outside the university. Some of my critics even suggest that Paterno should have made a follow-up call or two, just to be sure something was being done. I myself would in Joe’s place have been wary of that, lest I be accused of muddying up the case or favoritism or some other motive. Once reported, such matters are strictly confidential. And it is better practice not to have two separate investigations blindly crossing each other’s paths.

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Our legal system is set up to protect the victims of crimes, but also to protect innocent people against false and perhaps ruinous accusations. No law compels a witness to a crime to come forward with information (lest information seem coerced), much less a secondhand source. But Paterno did step forward — and ought to have. He also preserved the chain of due process. I have no access to Paterno’s thought processes here. His own legal standing depended on calling the right offices in the right order. Paterno had strong reasons for following the law carefully. In addition, Paterno had had no experience with Schultz and Curley that would lead him not to trust them. It appears that President Graham Spanier and the board did not, either. They dedicated the Gary Schultz Child Care Center on campus in September 2011.

(4) I have often taught my students that one thing Jewish and Christian religious beliefs add to moral philosophy is the idea that God sees all the things that the law cannot possibly see. That is why a believer should paint the bottom of a chair, even if not required, even if only God sees it. One works to please Him, not just the law.

#ad#We know now that Coach Paterno later grieved that he might have done more than he did do. I cannot think what that would have been. But such a thought would indicate that Joe was also thinking of the bottom of the chair, something extra.

Yet damn it! I feel morally diminished by pretending to stand in God’s place, seeing into Joe Paterno’s soul. I am in no position to judge what exactly Coach Paterno knew (and imagined) when he reported to university authorities that something “way over the line” had been witnessed in a university shower. What Paterno did do was responsible, dutiful, and called for — and in the end, it proved effective.

On the other side of the ledger, some critics objected that I did make two moral judgments in my first piece, one by calling what the board of trustees did an injustice, the other by pointing to Paterno as a moral beacon.

On the board, first. By not giving this great man a hearing, and by not having the decency to present their verdict to him face-to-face, the board did severe damage to Joe Paterno’s invaluable legacy, which lay in their hands to cherish and protect. In their defense, I can easily imagine — because I have heard them elsewhere — experts in law and PR heatedly and with total certainty advising the board: “Cut off the bad publicity now!

I just regret that there were not at least a few trustees who objected: “Let’s at least be decent. Let’s not throw away Paterno’s legacy, which is one of the greatest of the university’s assets. Keep his legacy alive. Accept his resignation. Call him here or let a small committee be allowed in through his back door, to avoid the crowd out front. Hear him out. We must NOT do this badly.

The New York Times article cited above makes clear that not a single voice, whether actually in the room or on the telephone, raised such an objection. For shame.

As to the charge that I highly praised Joe Paterno’s legacy as a moral beacon that will outlive not only Joe but all of us — Oh yes, I am guilty of that! Without going into Paterno’s conscience and his daily relationship with his Lord, I can see that across the whole of his public life Coach Paterno represented to tens of thousands the greatest moral leader of his region, a model of the classic Western ideal. JoePa was honored most by those who knew him best: upright, out-front, faithful to his word, beyond the call of duty in his loyalty to his players, to his community, and to his university. And, as it appears to those who knew him closest, loyal also to his Lord.

The record also shows that Joe Paterno was “The Thousandth Man” Rudyard Kipling sings of:

One man in a thousand, Solomon says,

Will stick more close than a brother.

And it’s worthwhile seeking him half your days

If you find him before the other.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend

On what the world sees in you,

But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend

With the whole round world agin you.

God be with you, Coach Paterno.

— Michael Novak is the author of The Joy of Sports, which was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the 100 best sports books of the 20th century. His website is www.michaelnovak.net.

Michael Novak — Michael Novak is Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat. The author of more than twenty-five books on the philosophy and theology of culture, Novak is most widely known for his ...

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