Even Joe Paterno Must Be Accountable

Penn State Coach's Legacy Will Live On After Sex Scandal

Tarnished Hero: Penn State fans posing next to a statue of ex-coach Joe Paterno. The revered figure was fired over his role in a child sex scandal involving a former coach.
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Tarnished Hero: Penn State fans posing next to a statue of ex-coach Joe Paterno. The revered figure was fired over his role in a child sex scandal involving a former coach.

By Laurie Stern

Published November 15, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
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The chimes of Old Main, the clock tower that looms over the campus of Pennsylvania State University, sound different these days: vacant, distant, ominous, as they’ve never been in my previous semesters. They’re no longer a quintessential collegiate timekeeper sheltered in a limestone tower. Now they’re a grave reminder of dark secrets that may have been uttered by men in the administrative offices below.

The final football weekend of my undergraduate career wasn’t supposed to be like this: Candlelight vigils held under a full moon, bomb threat advisories issued on a Saturday morning and moments of silence in a stadium of more than 100,000 people (dressed in blue, the color of child abuse awareness and, coincidentally, of the school).

It all went awry when the university was rocked by allegations that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused at least eight boys over the past decade. And worse still, top university officials allegedly knew and failed to call the authorities. Suddenly my own devotion to the university and what it stands for was in conflict with this deep moral failing. The details of the grand jury report indicting Sandusky, along with athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, senior vice president of finance and business, for perjury, are more frightening than anyone could have imagined.

But it was 84-year-old Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I college football history, who would ultimately cause the nation to look upon Happy Valley in dismay and question the integrity of institutions of higher education. While he apparently satisfied his legal responsibility by reporting the alleged sexual abuse to his higher-up, he failed to perform the moral duty of calling police once he was informed of an incident.

During a late-night press conference, the board of trustees announced that Penn State President Graham Spanier, who is Jewish, was fired along with Paterno.

Then the riots began.

Students poured out of their downtown apartments to wreak havoc in the name of JoePa, the golden calf of the religion that is Penn State football. A van was flipped; rocks were thrown; arrests were made.

Paterno and his family have done much for this institution. They contributed more than $4 million to fund university scholarships and to support the library and spiritual center. He is not just a coach; he’s an educator and is credited with helping Penn State become a top research university. His Brooklyn accent and Italian ancestry make him all the more likable.

I also felt the attraction. Being one of thousands of students at Beaver Stadium is exhilarating and terrifying all at once. There is a comfort that comes with chanting time-honored fight songs in unison and swaying when the marching band plays the alma mater. It’s always us against this team or that team, us against the world. Students here feel powerful and indomitable.


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