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Paterno legacy not easy to call

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POSTED: November 18, 2011 10:06 a.m.

After living in Pennsylvania for the first 22 years of my life, I was devastated when I first heard about the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal that currently is rocking Penn State University.

I should disclose that I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, so I grew up rooting for Pitt and whatever team Penn State was playing that particular week. But when I found out about the scandal, my first thought was that it was an extremely unfortunate situation regardless of where it occurred.

It has been a couple weeks now since a grand jury indicted the former Penn State assistant coach on 40 counts of sex crimes against eight children in a 15-year period. Regarding Sandusky, I think most people agree that he needs to be locked up for a very long time. He obviously has a serious problem and should be heavily supervised if he’s ever around kids again.

Former Senior Vice President Gary Schultz, who was in charge of overseeing Penn State police, and Former Athletic Director Tim Curley were charged for not reporting the alleged abuse and for lying to a grand jury. They, too, deserved to lose their jobs, as did university President Graham Spanier. 

As for former Penn State coach Joe Paterno — it still sounds weird to call him the former coach — I continue to have mixed feelings about the situation. I don’t know exactly how the chain of command works at Penn State when a school official has something serious to report, but Paterno notified the athletic director within one day of learning of the alleged incident that occurred in a shower on campus.

Paterno supposedly acted as he should have, at least in a legal sense, but the verdict is still out on whether he had a moral obligation to do more. Penn State’s board of trustees obviously believed the latter because they ousted him, effective immediately, after Paterno announced he would retire at the end of the season.

It seems Paterno followed the chain of command, so I don’t know yet if I can blame him for his incident-reporting actions or lack thereof. What I do blame him for is permitting Sandusky to hang around the Penn State campus and interact with kids. The head coach must have known that wasn’t right. Maybe he thought Sandusky’s incident was a one-time thing and didn’t have the nerve to continue reporting his friend and colleague. We can all sit here and say we’d definitely report our friends or coworkers if we knew they were involved in something illegal or harmful to children, but none of us know for sure if we’d really do it unless we actually were in that situation.

I feel bad that Paterno had to go out the way he did. After leading Penn State since 1966 and winning more games than any other NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision coach, it’s a shame that his legacy will be remembered more for his connection with the sex-abuse case than for his achievements on and off the field in State College.

I know it would have been an extreme distraction for his team, opponents, fans and the media, but at least part of me wishes he could’ve finished out the season and then retired on his own terms. The damage had been done long before Sandusky became a household name, so I don’t think that allowing Paterno to coach a few more games would have done much harm to anyone.

And while Paterno obviously would do some things differently if he had the chance to go through this again, I don’t think this scandal should completely define who he is as a person. Paterno played an integral role in shaping college football and churned out players who were successful academically as well as athletically. (He also fostered two of the Steelers’ very own — Franco Harris and Jack Ham.) Paterno and his wife have donated millions to the university and had been considered pillars of the Penn State community.

This case is nowhere near its conclusion yet, so I can’t fully assess the situation until I have the advantage of hindsight months or years down the road. I certainly don’t condone Paterno’s seemingly lackadaisical behavior; I just don’t think his legacy should be judged solely on his involvement with Sandusky.

More important than the legacy of Paterno, though, are the sexual assault victims. I’m optimistic that the legal system will bring the alleged offender to justice, but I feel bad that the victims now have to relive the abuse every time they hear or read about the case.

If one good thing can come from this whole fiasco, I hope that it increases people’s awareness of child abuse and encourages people to “do the right thing” when they find out that abuse may be occurring.

If you suspect that a child is being abused, call Childhelp at 800-422-4453 or contact your local Division of Family and Children Services office.

Christie Schroeder is the copy editor for the Coastal Courier.

 

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