Op-Ed published in 2016 on 14thstreetmagazine.com.
Fifty years ago from Saturday, Joe Paterno coached his first Penn State football game. Fifty years ago, before a statue was raised in his honor and an ice cream flavor was named for him. Before Paterno’s 30-year assistant Jerry Sandusky raped 10 young boys, some in the University’s own athletic complex bathrooms. Before Paterno was an enabler of child sexual abuse, allegedly ignoring a complaint from a young boy in 1971 who was raped by Sandusky.
Saturday commemorated the 50th anniversary of a head coach who was aware of and allowed for Sandusky’s continued abuse for almost the entirety of his head coaching career. He kept the secrets of the Penn State showers clouded and turned his back while Sandusky – his right-hand man on the football field – unapologetically had his way with children. As an outsider at Beaver Stadium Saturday, I witnessed an unworthy celebration.
The stadium blew up with unquestioning applause for Paterno twice, in the second and third quarters, as megatrons displayed his image and listed his contributions to Penn State. Fans gathered and prayed around a memorial where Paterno’s statue used to stand. The University, whose name is forever tarnished by the scandal, is trying to backtrack to a time when Paterno was an innocent part of the equation.
It’s another way Penn State administration is attempting to avoid the real issue. They go to great lengths to make sure all appears happy in Happy Valley. Many Penn State affiliates worship Paterno. They wear JoePa memorial T-shirts while walking hand in hand with their young daughters and sons, walking examples of denial.
Not only do they celebrate a child sexual abuse enabler, but the administration and affiliates continue to protect the delusional belief that nothing is wrong with it. Never is it acceptable to praise the character of m
an who abandoned abuse victims, no matter his number of wins or the weight of his contributions to the school. While Penn State did remove Paterno’s statue from outside the stadium four years ago many alumni still protest for its return.
At a fork in the scandal’s path in May, when it was revealed Paterno knew about the abuse since 1971, Penn State had two options: discontinue outward support for Paterno and potentially lose his ongoing scholarship donations and the thousands of fans who idolize him, or ignore his moral shortcomings and reap the financial benefits.
It’s impossible to put Paterno’s contributions into a single number, but they include millions and continue to grow with the financial success of the football team. With these consequences in mind, the University attempts to quiet the critics.
Some of those critics Saturday included Penn State students themselves, and a small patch of Temple cherry in Beaver Stadium for the game. I was sitting in the Temple section, where students actively protested the celebration. Four students held a banner that read “He turned his back, we’ll turn ours #JoePaKnew” and almost the entire section put their backs to the stadium during the two-minute megatron clips.
During halftime, the banner caused some fierce language and physical interaction between a Penn State and two Temple fans. Though the students with the banner were uninvolved, stadium authorities made their way to the top of the section to act on a complaint that the banner was “offensive.” The authorities ignored reports of the fight altogether, did not even bother talking to the men involved and turned their attention to the Temple students. They first made the students remove the banner, then told them it had to be confiscated. The Temple students refused.
They argued that it was a matter of free speech – the banner lacked any profanity and was a simply-stated opinion of the Paterno issue. It did not matter if a Paterno supporter found it to be offensive. The Temple students backfired with the argument that the honoring of Paterno offended them. The officials had no legal authority to remove the banner from a public University’s facility. One of them even told me they did not want to act upon the complaint, but they received an order from an administrator to do so.
The officials and students continued to deliberate and four more armed officers entered the section. They left empty-handed minutes later, realizing they had no real authority over the students’ demonstration.
Somehow, the Penn State administration believed they had a monopoly on the Paterno issue – another false reality. The University was allowed to celebrate Paterno, but attempted to disallow students from condemning him. It’s clear that the administration is putting aside an important turning point in the case to defend Paterno’s contributions and the name of Penn State football.
What they do not realize is that we now live in a “see something, say something” era. Professional football is spreading domestic abuse awareness and advocating stricter punishments for players and NFL team staff accused of sexual assault or enabling.
The male sports world is going through a change. In the recent past, reports of sexual assault against sports participants have gone ignored, or given lackluster punishments. Now, the NFL is at least taking a stance against those who ignore sexual assault.
The Sandusky scandal gave momentum to this movement, and Penn State should have taken the scandal as an opportunity to promote zero tolerance for abusers or enablers. Instead, they cling to legacy and financial gain. As the sports world takes a step forward, Penn State takes two steps back.
The Paterno controversy not only reveals deeper issues in Penn State’s administration, but highlights Temple’s handling of a similar situation, as the University is currently facing a huge sexual assault scandal involving a former major contributor, Bill Cosby.
Cosby was on the Board of Trustees and heavily influential in the Temple community until numerous women began coming out and accusing him of rape. As he was initially facing trial, he was forced to resign from the Board. University affiliates are now advocating to take back his honorary degree. Despite his influence and financial contributions, the University feels a moral obligation to separate from him, as he was an accused sexual abuser. He has not even been convicted and no accusations have been confirmed.
Paterno was revealed to have known about Sandusky’s child abuse since 1971, according to multiple reports, and in 2002 it was confirmed that a witness of the abuse came to Paterno with the information. Sandusky was not convicted until 2011. Paterno was involved with a scandal where he and Penn State authorities protected a child rapist within their own facilities and yet the University continues to take pride. Paterno has provided a tremendous amount of money and success to the school and is the man behind the prestige of the football team, which brings in millions each year. So they honor him. They honor a man who allowed children to be raped and led a program of dishonesty.
Respect for Paterno has already been lost by outsiders, who are waiting for Penn State to accept the unfortunate situation and break the bubble of delusion surrounding Happy Valley.