Maybe Joe Paterno Isn’t a Hypocrite and a Fraud

I've changed my mind after reading the Washington Post interview.

I was among those who threw former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno under the bus for his turning a blind eye to the rape allegations involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. In a November column, I called Paterno a “hypocrite and a fraud.”

But after the passage of time and reading Sally Jenkins’s interview with Paterno in the Washington Post, there is a part of me that thinks JoePa also got the shaft. Don’t get me wrong, I still think Paterno could have and should have done more to stop Sandusky from allegedly abusing young boys.

But JoePa’s role in the Sandusky scandal is not that black and white. It is more gray and deserves another look. Granted, Jenkins’s portrayal of Paterno is a sympathetic one. He is 85 and suffering from cancer, has lost his hair, and is confined to a wheelchair. It is no fun to kick him when he is down.

After all, Paterno only devoted his life to the school. He put Penn State on the map. Paterno was hired to be a football coach, and he was a damn good one. In fact, he has won more games than any other college coach. Paterno’s players graduated at a much higher rate than most other football factories. The university profited from Paterno’s success.

But the minute public opinion soured on Paterno, the university trustees cut and ran. The trustees were probably following the advice of lawyers who were doing their best to contain the university’s legal exposure and rehabilitate the image of Happy Valley. In doing so, Paterno suddenly became expendable. This is not to downplay the abuse of the young boys, but the university’s handling of Paterno’s final days was shabby.

According to the Washington Post story, four days after Sandusky’s arrest, an assistant athletic director knocked on Paterno’s door at about 10 p.m. and, without saying a word, he handed Paterno’s wife, Sue, a piece of paper with the name of the vice chairman of trustees, John Surma, and a phone number. Paterno dialed the number, and Surma told him: “In the best interests of the university, you are terminated.”

Note the phrasing, “in the best interests of the university.” Translation: Joe, now that you are no longer a cash cow for Penn State, we’re putting you out to pasture.

Again, Paterno’s hands are not clean. He should have been more proactive. Even Paterno admitted: “In hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

But at the same time, Paterno isn’t the person accused of raping young boys. When an assistant coach told Paterno about seeing a former coach in the shower with a boy, he reported it to Penn State’s athletic director. The grand jury said Paterno followed the proper course of action.

Could Paterno have done more? Sure. Was he trying to protect his reputation or the football program? Perhaps. But there is no evidence that Paterno participated in a cover-up. Sandusky no longer worked for the university in 2002 when Paterno says he first learned of the abuse allegations.

Paterno told Jenkins he was unaware of a 1998 police investigation into a report from a mother that Sandusky had inappropriately touched her son in a shower. The prosecutor declined to bring charges, and the investigation ended. Sandusky retired the following year.

On that score, it seems hard to believe that in a small town like State College, Paterno didn’t hear about this. Was there any pressure on the prosecutor to make the investigation go away? Until proven otherwise, let’s give Paterno the benefit of the doubt.

But back to Penn State’ shabby treatment of Paterno.

The rush to tear down Paterno statues and remove his name from the campus is heartless. If the university is going to scrub Paterno from the campus he helped to build, then it should also tear down the library he helped fund. No doubt, JoePa could have handled the Sandusky scandal better, but his wife put it best in the interview with Sally Jenkins.

“After 61 years he deserved better,” she said.

Yes, he did.