The media and much of the football fan response to football coach Joe Paterno’s firing at Pennsylvania State University has been so ludicrous and immoral that it surely will become a cautionary tale of what happens when college athletic programs become ridiculously sacrosanct even though they aren’t vital to an academic mission.
Here’s the broad outline of the case: Jerry Sandusky, a former defense coordinator under head coach Paterno, has been charged with molesting children from 1994 through 2009. Several of the alleged incidents took place while Sandusky was coaching at Penn State. The charges included the information that a graduate assistant reported to Paterno in 2002 that he saw Sandusky having sexual intercourse with a 10-year-old boy in the showers at the athletic facilities. Paterno, then, reported the information to his superiors, and, well, that was it. It didn’t result in a thorough investigation.
This led to the Wednesday firing of Paterno, who is 84 and supposedly a football legend, and the university president because they simply didn’t do enough given the serious nature of the allegations. Unfortunately and unbelievably, some Penn State students actually rioted last night as a gesture of support for Paterno, who coached the team for 46 years. We can hope it’s just a small misguided group acting on impulse, not careful scrutiny of the case.
Let’s be clear:
- Even if all the charges against Sandusky turn out to be complete fabrications, Paterno was morally deficient to not aggressively follow through to find out if Sandusky was molesting children. It was his human duty, especially as someone in an important position of leadership, to protect the most vulnerable in our society. He didn’t report the allegations to the police or apparently confront Sandusky. This will be Paterno’s legacy, not football victories.
- The graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, who went to Paterno after what he said he witnessed in the showers, is now an assistant coach with the program. He should be fired as well. He didn’t intervene when he saw Sandusky with the child. He didn’t follow through with the police. It’s immoral inaction. If he’s making up the allegation, then he should be fired for that reason. Think about this. Here’s someone who said he saw a child getting raped and he didn’t do anything at the time it happened. Even if he was scared and physically afraid for his own safety, he could have called the police. He also could have followed up later after reporting it to Paterno.
- Athletic programs are not central to the mission of universities. The argument they create collective “spirit” is nebulous and ambiguous. Universities are about educating people and research, not winning football games. If this case serves as a reminder of how non-essential sports are to the academic mission for all universities, then maybe a small good will come from it. The academic mission is the pursuit of truth, and the truth is that child molestation is a serious crime with devastating consequences for the victims. No football coach or university president is more important than this truth.
- Maureen Dowd, a New York Times columnist, pointed out that this case seems reminiscent of the Catholic Church’s recent sex scandals in which priests molested children and there was a systematic, arrogant cover-up of their crimes. Those people who participate in such cover-ups are culpable and should be charged criminally on charges they allowed child abuse to take place. Did the leadership at Penn State believe the football program’s image was more important than protecting children from getting raped? Who else knew about the allegations?
I watched some of the ESPN coverage of the scandal and Paterno’s firing Wednesday night, and I was amazed at how many people interviewed felt sorry for the former coach. What about abused children? Who will speak for them? Losing a job that you probably should have retired from years ago is a small price to pay compared to what abused children go through. Maybe they should teach that at Penn State.