I’ve avoided this story as it developed over the past few days because frankly, this transcends college football. What happened at Penn State is a crime of the worst kind involving a predator who prayed upon the trust of those he abused. I was also afraid that by writing on the incident, it would be too easy to fall into jokes and comments that trivialize the situation. But at some point, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the story and the response taking place.
As news came out today of Coach Paterno’s pending retirement at the end of the season we are also learning that as many as 17 victims have come forward against Jerry Sandusky and there may be more. Although Penn State students and fans are quick to defend their beloved coach, how does he avoid implication in this story. The grand jury investigation began three years ago and Coach Paterno admits to knowing about the abuse as far back as 2002.
And although Coach Paterno may not have been directly involved in the cover up and may have properly reported his knowledge of the activities to his supervisors, what is most concerning are the reports that Sandusky remained a figure around the Penn State football program. He was provided an office at the university and used the weight room as recently as last week. This after The Second Mile charity had banned him from their programs in 2008 after Sandusky’s admission that he was under investigation for his actions.
Coach Paterno is an institution in college football. He has always stood for the good things that make college football great. It is nothing short of tragic to see him end his career on this note. Yes, it is entirely possibly that Coach Paterno refused to accept the accusations made about a close colleague and friend (although he does seem to accept that the incident in 2002 occured) but that does not excuse him. Even if he had absolutely no knowledge of Sandusky’s actions, which it appears he did, as the figure head that he is and his association with Sandusky he must accept the fact that he allowed a predictor such as Sandusky to maintain a role at the university. While the true blame lies with Sandusky and the administrators who allowed this to happen, Coach Paterno cannot wash his hands of the incident. As painful as it is for all involved (not talking victims here), in the best case scenario Coach Paterno’s ignorance does not excuse him from the problems within an organization that carries his name as a figure head above all others.
Although this was most likely Coach Paterno’s last season, the announcement of his retirement has been pushed forward because of the investigation at Penn State. But unless Coach Paterno steps down now and never again walks across the field as a coach at Penn State, Sandusky’s victims will be forced to endure the tears and admiration which will flow at what would be his last home game on Saturday. In his official statement announcing his retirement, Coach Paterno said that he wanted to “…finish the season with dignity…” and spend the rest of his life doing everything he can to help the university.
As painful as it may be to accept, the only way to do that would be to step down now. There will be time to give him a proper honor in the years to come.