The Sins of Penn State: The Untold Story of Joe Paterno’s Fall

The world Joe Paterno created brought him down in the end.

ONE OF THE STUNNING ASPECTS of the Sandusky scandal was Graham Spanier’s seeming inability to grasp the seriousness of the crisis as it built last fall. He had allegedly signed off on Tim Curley’s decision, in 2002, to ban Sandusky from bringing children onto campus (which Curley admitted was unenforceable). He was well aware, of course, of the three-year grand jury investigation into Sandusky; he testified. But the trustees say he gave them only the most cursory heads-up about it, and when the indictments of Curley and Schultz for lying to the grand jury were announced, Spanier publicly proclaimed his “unconditional support” for them.

Spanier’s friends shake their heads. What happened? Did he go brain-dead?

A surprisingly simple answer to that comes from Richard Gelles, the dean of the Penn School of Social Policy & Practice, who knows Spanier well and thinks the world of him. Gelles says that 40 years ago he worked in a hospital. It was known that an employee there had molested his own 13-year-old daughter. But he was never reported. Because he happened to be head of a department.

There is a reluctance, Gelles explains, “to report way up,” to embroil our highest superiors in something so low and ugly. We might be afraid to, certainly, but we also may have trouble believing in the guilt of our betters.

Is that what made Spanier blind to the oncoming train wreck of the Sandusky indictment? A half-dozen people close to Spanier all say that if he believed a child had been raped on his campus, he would have acted immediately. It seems quite plausible that he simply couldn’t wrap his mind around the possibility of something so heinous emanating from Joe Paterno’s football program—though clearly not out of any love for the coach. It looks much more like an inability even to consider diving into the nexus of Paterno’s power.

As for Tim Curley, well, it’s pretty obvious he was going to weigh whatever his boss—excuse me, his subordinate—wanted, and then lean hard in that direction. What would Joe want me to do?

Curley simply didn’t know how to say no. His office supplied football tickets to Jerry and Dottie Sandusky, and there they were at the Illinois game—hobnobbing in a suite with big-time donors and other PSU big shots—a week before the scandal broke. Even though, by that point, Tim Curley surely knew what was about to hit Happy Valley.