Joe Paterno’s sixty-plus years at Penn State have come to an end. Like so many long tenures, it ended badly. Paterno, who has long resisted all attempts to retire him, announced he would leave at the end of this season and was not even allowed that, fired by the Board of Trustees last night.
Let us begin with what should be obvious: nothing that has happened, or will happen, to Paterno is in any way comparable to the damage that has been done to the young men molested by former assistant Jerry Sandusky. Assuming he is, in fact, guilty, there is no court with the authority to punish him severely enough. Athletic Director Tim Curley and University Vice President Gary Schultz have also earned their doses of infamy.
The preponderance of public invective has fallen on Paterno. Maybe that is as it should be; he is the leading public figure in this scandal. Still, the level of vitriol is surprising. Is it deserved? Unlike the vast majority of those who have heaped their scorn upon him via the internet today, I have actually read the grand jury report. I know using actual evidence violates the spirit of the web, but let’s give it a try.
Then graduate assistant (now assistant coach) Mike McQuery was in the Lasch Center (which houses the football offices) on a Friday evening to put new sneakers in his locker and pick up tapes for an upcoming game when he heard suspicious sounds coming from the shower. He took a look and saw former defensive coordinator Sandusky sodomizing a boy about ten years old. They saw each other, and everyone left.
McQuery, distraught, calls his father, then goes to his home, where his father tells him he has to tell Paterno. The next morning, McQuery goes to Paterno’s home and does so. Paterno said in his testimony McQuery was visibly upset. Paterno found his story credible enough to call Curley to his home Sunday morning and tell him what McQuery had seen. It also seems clear the language Paterno used was somewhat toned down from the description McQuery had given, though he definitely said Sandusky had been seen doing something of a sexual nature with a young boy. (Paterno at the time was in his mid-seventies. It is not surprising his language would not be as strong.)
Curley then contacted Schultz, under whose authority resided the university police force. They waited a week-and-a-half to speak to McQuery; Paterno was not present. Afterward they notified the police, but were apparently less than forthcoming. The grand jury summary says McQuery was “extremely credible.” Curley and Schultz were both described as “not credible.”
Could Paterno have done more? Absolutely. Should he have done more? Probably. Let’s look at what he did, and not what we’d all like to think we’d do in a similar situation.
McQuery played quarterback at Penn State, and obviously made enough of an impression on Paterno to be offered a graduate assistantship. He is entitled to a certain amount of credence. One Saturday morning, out of the blue, he tells Paterno he saw a man Paterno has worked closely with for over 30 years sodomizing a young boy. If I were Paterno, my first thought would be, “Kid, you’d better be pretty goddamned sure.” Paterno saw the McQuery was visibly upset, so he escalated it to his boss the next day. The grand jury finds no fault with this action.
The leading meme today has been, “Why didn’t Paterno call the police?” Let’s say he does. What does he tell them? “I have a grad student here who says he saw Jerry Sandusky buggering a small child.”
COP: Did you see anything?
COP: Send over the grad student.
They’re done with him. They need eyewitness testimony, and Paterno doesn’t have any.
The next argument I saw on a couple of comment threads was that Paterno should not only have gone to the police, he should have kept after them. These people watch too much television. I’ve made child abuse complaints twice, once when a woman shopping in a store where I worked refused to take her son for a free hospital exam after a nasty fall; the other occurred when child pornography appeared in my email. The police took my statement, got my contact information, and went on their way. They were clear that they’d call me if they needed me, but my role had ended. That’s what would have happened here. Police do not discuss open investigations with civilians. Period.
Another argument against insisting Paterno should have become a crusader for light and right is that State College PA is a small town. Its current population is listed at 39,898. Joe Paterno’s number is in the book. (Probably not anymore, but before this week it had always been.) Someone overhears on the police scanner that JoePa has called for cops, and what is still at that point an unsubstantiated claim is now public knowledge. He’s known Sandusky for a long time. He’s not likely to take the chance of ruining the guy’s life on one other person’s say so. What if it’s nothing? We know it wasn’t now, but Paterno wasn’t there when it happened; he didn’t see anything. He moved it up the chain, as he should have.
Put yourself in his position. You hear a similar story of a friend of thirty years. (For those who aren’t that old, think of a favorite uncle or mentor.) Is calling the police the first thing you do? Hasn’t that kind of relationship has earned the benefit of the doubt? Sure, you do something. Me, I’d urge the person who came to me to go to the police; he actually has evidence for them. If he’s afraid, then, yes, maybe I wander into the police station and make a statement. But maybe not, if I’m so high profile my appearance there–or the appearance of the police at my house–lets the toothpaste out of the tube.
I was then swatted with another argument, that the above statement only helps the guilty. We should go to the police with every such allegation we here. The presumption of innocence will protect against unfounded charges. Does anyone here remember Richard Jewell and the Atlanta Olympics? The Tawana Brawley case? McMartin pre-school? The toothpaste never quite gets put back into the tube, does it?
Maybe the worst thing I read today came from John Scalzi, a science fiction writer for whom I have had great respect. In the comment threads to his post demonizing Paterno, after a commenter said this:
“Meanwhile, all the rage at JoePa has taken the focus off the real monster.”
“Alleged monster,” please. We should continue to remember that the alleged monster has yet to have his day in court.
Apparently for Paterno to get a fair hearing in the court of public opinion, he had not sinned enough; he needed to get himself indicted. Then a presumption of innocence would apply.
We all grieve for these children, and for Curley and Schultz to delay in their follow-up and then lie to the authorities is beneath contempt. What is disturbing is the levels of vitriol directed at someone who was not himself directly involved. It is true that all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing; that does not make them evil themselves, or cowards. It makes them human. Let’s please just tone down this casting of first stones.
The most valuable thing I learned today? How glad I am the readers of John Scalzi’s blog are not my friends.