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THE PENN STATE CASE AND THE DISPARAGEMENT OF JOE PATERNO

August 1, 2012

Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic

THE PENN STATE CASE AND THE DISPARAGEMENT OF JOE PATERNO

By Stephen M. Krason

     I grew up in south central Pennsylvania and during most of the years as a pre-teen to early college student when I followed college football I was a mild Penn State fan. I have not paid much attention to the Nittany Lions for over thirty years. Still, I have found the treatment of the late, legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno in the wake of the Sandusky child sex abuse convictions to be reprehensible.

     The report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees, charged that Paterno and other Penn State officials failed to demonstrate “any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims” or “to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children.” At a press conference Freeh claimed that Paterno could have stopped the abuse “if he so wished.” He came to this conclusion even though he never bothered to interview anyone in Paterno’s family. Since then, we have witnessed the NCAA stripping Penn State and Paterno retrospectively of 111 game victories, officially eliminating his achievement of being the winningest coach in NCAA football history (as if historical facts could be changed by an organizational edict), and the tearing down of the statue at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium of Paterno leading his players onto the field. In also imposing a 60-million-dollar fine on the University, a four-year ban on post-season play, and a sharp reduction of the number of football scholarships the university can offer, the NCAA claimed that their action was intended to send a message to universities across the country to restore a balance between academics and athletics. The latter statement was particularly inapt and vacuous. Paterno consistently had one of the highest player graduation rates in the country and was known for stressing academics when many other coaches didn’t. Also, the NCAA has hardly been aggressive in promoting serious academic commitment among student-athletes—especially in Division I—or of stopping college football from becoming a big business.

     Attorney William Choslovsky brings out a number of facts in an op-ed piece in the Harrisburg Patriot-News online site on July 22, 2012 that the proverbial lynch mob should take note of before planning their next act of character assassination of a dead man. He recounts how police “fully investigated” the first allegation against Sandusky, which was in 1998. They even “secretly listened in on conversations Sandusky had with the mother” of the allegedly abused boy, who went to them. Still, they did not charge Sandusky. In light of the absence of criminal charges, Choslovsky says that Paterno may have had no grounds to fire Sandusky, if that is what he wanted to do. If he had tried to do so, he might have been sued by Sandusky for wrongful discharge or defamation. Nevertheless, Sandusky retired the next year, even though he was only 55 and being sought after for college head coaching positions. As Choslovsky asks, is it possible that Paterno exerted some pressure on him to retire early?

     The much-publicized shower incident in 2001, which a graduate assistant coach witnessed but was unclear about what Sandusky did, was the only other opportunity for Paterno to act against Sandusky. By that time, however, he was no longer Paterno’s employee but was allowed to retain an office and use the athletic facilities (which would not be an uncommon arrangement for a long-time coach). Choslovsky says Paterno reported the graduate assistant coach’s information “up the chain of command.” He did this, in spite of the fact that he got the report second-hand from an assistant who was murky on what had happened. Actually, a former Penn State staffer told me that, from the news reports about this, Paterno apparently made his report to the person at the university in charge of the campus police, which according to state law have the same status and authority as any other police department in the state. In other words, it sounds as if Paterno reported the episode to exactly the authorities he was supposed to. Paterno can hardly be held responsible for what the people above him at the university did or didn’t do after that. Contrary to Freeh’s conclusion that Paterno was one of “the major leaders of Penn State,” a football coach—even one as prominent as Paterno—does not direct affairs or make decisions at a university.

     As the saying goes, “hindsight is always 20/20.” It’s also very easy to second-guess someone’s choices when we weren’t there. It is even worse for people to judge Paterno pejoratively, as if he were somehow an accomplice to Sandusky. There are many moral outrages spawned by secular, relativistic Western culture. The behavior of people like Jerry Sandusky is one of them. One consequence of the culture usually not mentioned, however, is the loss of charity. So, people are ready—even eager, it seems—to prejudge, pounce on, and destroy the reputations and lives of others. Isn’t this ironic in the same age in which we are told that prejudice is almost an unforgivable sin?

     Maybe we should note what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2477) says about rash judgment, detraction, and calumny. It calls them “offenses against truth.” All these seem in play in the reaction against Paterno.

     It sounds as if Penn State, Louis Freeh, the NCAA, and the many detractors seem to be forgetting that it was Jerry Sandusky, not Joe Paterno, who sexually abused numerous boys. It’s outrageous that the spotlight is squarely on Paterno. It’s also blatantly unfair—and more than a little cowardly—that all the critics are directing their wrath at a man who is not here to defend himself. Is Paterno just the convenient scapegoat for Penn State officials? It is certainly not unfamiliar behavior for university officials and boards—and for that matter their governmental and corporate counterparts—to “throw people under the bus” in the cause of damage control. It is especially tempting to lay the blame on a dead man who can’t sue you for defamation. The former Penn State staffer even wondered if this was somehow an opportunity for “payback” to Paterno for his frequent public support for pro-life and other causes that were not liked by the leftist academics at Penn State.

   Parenthetically, it’s also interesting that, even though Sandusky’s victims were apparently all boys, no one is saying anything about homosexuality. It’s like how no one wants to call the U.S. priest sex abuse scandal a homosexual scandal, even though that’s mostly what it was.

     As Choslovsky says, Paterno “by all indications walked the talk 99 percent of the time.” That’s not enough for many people today. They want 150 percent—even though they would quickly flee from any effort to put their own lives under a microscope. We see this vividly in the “politics of personal destruction” that rules in the U.S. today. The Paterno case illustrates that it is not just in politics that we see this.

     There are implications well beyond Paterno and Penn State. Rushing to supposedly “help the children” after the Penn State story surfaced, Senators Casey (of Pennsylvania) and Boxer (of California) began to push legislation mandating that all adult U.S. citizens report suspected child abuse (there will almost certainly be criminal penalties for failure to do so). Maybe the senators should have bothered to look at the state of child abuse reporting under the current laws. With just a selected group of mandated reporters (e.g., medical personnel, counselors, teachers) and the ease of reporting by others on hotlines, we have seen the amount of reporting of child abuse and neglect go up over 2400% since the passage of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (the Mondale Act) in 1974. Evidence indicates that perhaps 80% of these reports are unfounded. Many involve actions that no reasonable person would consider abuse or neglect. It’s another example of legislators rushing to impose more laws because of media hype or the need to address a supposed “crisis.” The only result here will be a further heightening of the true crisis: runaway state intrusion into the family, false allegations of abuse and neglect against innocent parents, and a child protective system so busy chasing silliness that it fails to protect children who are really threatened.

Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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