Some People Just Don’t Get It

They just don’t get it. From the the Catholic Church to Penn State University to the family of the late Joe Paterno, they just don’t understand. Perusing today’s headlines I came across this gem from the AP, “Paterno Family Says Sanctions Defame Legacy”. What?! 

By now, you have probably heard that the NCAA levied some pretty harsh sanctions against Penn State’s football program to the tune of  a $60 million fine, a four year bowl ban, the loss of 40 scholarships, and the forced vacation of 112 wins. It’s that last sanction that must irk Joe Paterno’s family the most. With the vacation of those 112 wins, Paterno is no longer the winningest coach in college football history. That distinction now falls to Bobby Bowden of Florida State. JoPa’s legend is indeed tainted, but not because of the sanctions levied against the university he served for so long.
The statement released by Paterno’s family rightly expressed disgust at Jerry Sandusky’s actions and sympathy for Sandusky’s victims, but cried foul over what they deemed a lack of “due process” regarding the levying of punishments against the Penn State and Paterno before “other investigations” run their own course. They decry the Freeh report, the NCAA, and Penn State University equally as being nothing more than
reactionary entities in the throes of damage control. It seems they wanted to be interviewed regarding the issues at hand or otherwise be involved in the investigation as it happened. I assume these “other investigations” mentioned here refer to the criminal investigations into whether Penn State administration and Paterno covered up the abuse as it went on and should have reported the abuse to authorities. The problem is that these allegations and all their associated umbrage miss the point. The family runs the risk of being seen as more concerned with Paterno’s legacy than the suffering his actions allowed to happen.
But really, that is what happens in situations like this. The institutional leadership of organizations that are faced with this type of scandal close ranks out of fear that the damage to the organizations could be irreparable. But this idea is so short sighted as to be laughable. These allegations almost always come out eventually. When the damage of the allegations is combined with the damage of the cover up, it becomes magnified and takes on a life of its own. Just ask the Catholic Church. After covering up and protecting abusive priests for so long, the Church became guilty of facilitating the abuse that took place. Penn State and Joe Paterno could have prevented years of abuse against an unknown number of victims if they had only chosen to take the hit to their reputations and reported the allegations when they first appeared. The consequences of not reporting the abuse remain far worse now, years later.
JoPa’s family seems to want the world to give Paterno his due for years of academic and athletic excellence while completely ignoring the system that allowed him the impunity to cover up and hide misconduct by his athletes and coaches. They want us to believe that Coach Joe, the man who preached integrity or decades, should either be taken at his word that he didn’t know that Sandusky was sexually abusing defenseless boys on campus or forgiven for a lapse in judgement for not reporting the allegations when he heard them. But we can’t do that because doing that changes absolutely nothing in the system Paterno benefited from during his coaching tenure. Instead of holding the institutional leadership accountable and protecting the innocent, such a tack only perpetuates the problem. Paterno’s family should realize this whenever commenting on the scandal and its consequences. Paterno’s reputation, even his legacy as a coach, is meaningless when compared to the suffering that happened under his watch, some of which he could have prevented. Paterno’s family insults the victims of this abuse when they claim the NCAA’s just penalties in some way “defame” the old coach’s legacy.
As for the supposed lack of “due proces”, he had his opportunity to come clean before a grand jury, but the evidence suggests he stonewalled for a time and finally lied instead. The Freeh Report was developed after a lengthy and comprehensive investigation that included cooperation by local and federal law enforcement. The criminal investigations that are currently taking place could hardly be expected to exonerate Paterno, given the evidence that has already been made public. There is no need for redundancy here. The NCAA had plenty of information on which to base its decision. For once, it acted decisively against a storied institution. But I don’t see the defamation here. At the very least, there is compelling evidence Paterno intentionally chose to protect Sandusky instead of Sandusky’s victims, primarily because doing so meant he was protecting himself and his own vaunted reputation in the process.
This case turns my stomach, and it should turn yours. Nobody wins in such cases, but the biggest losers remain the victims, who had their dignity and humanity stripped away from them. They are forever changed by the trauma of their experiences. What Sandusky stole from them, and Joe Paterno and Penn State perpetuated through inaction, cannot be given back. The only way to prevent future cases like this is to remember, to never forget, those victims every time sexual abuse comes to light. In remembering the victims and their suffering, we gain a more clear-eyed perspective, a better evaluation of priorities, when deciding how to address the issues associated with such perverse actions. No individual’s legacy or institution’s reputation is worth that suffering. Not even Joe Paterno’s.