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.

But occasionally I’ll look to my right or left and be alarmed by the sea of faces cheering and dancing around me unabashedly, uncritically.

We have been groomed to be this way since the first day of freshman year. It’s one of the reasons that the school boasts the largest dues-paying alumni association in the world. It’s all for one, one for all, and keeping that mantra intact was part of what led to the administration’s failings.

Avodah zarah, or idolatry, is a dangerous thing. In the wake of the press conference announcement of Paterno’s firing, some fans chose to rake his leaves and to shower him and his family with gifts of flowers and balloons. Shouts of “We love you, Joe” could be heard each time the door of his modest home was opened. Suddenly the Sandusky case became about Paterno and his tarnished legacy instead of the children who may have suffered at the hand of a pedophile.

Paterno needed to go in order for the university to affirm that authority figures are not immune from accountability for their actions, or in this case, their inactions. And though it hurts — as sudden change after 46 years of stability surely does — it’s the only way for the Penn State community to begin to heal.

There has been talk of dismantling the bronze statue of Paterno that sits outside the football stadium walls, and of erasing his likeness from community murals and renaming buildings. Penn Staters aren’t sure if it’s still okay to drink coffee out of a “We love our Joe” mug or to wear a “Joe Knows Football” T-shirt. The Big Ten athletic conference has already removed his name from the championship trophy.

It would be impossible, unthinkable, to try to erase him from the hearts and memories of the community. Instead, the name Paterno should serve as a catalyst for change. It will be a reminder that the safety and welfare of human beings, particularly children, will always reign supreme over the power of men, the public image of a school, or the outcome of a football game.

Laurie Stern, a former Forward intern, is a senior at Penn State and an investigative reporter on the school’s paper.


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