The year was 1994, and Penn State had just beaten arch-rival Michigan, en route to its perfect football season. I was 3 years old as my dad hoisted me on his shoulder so I could see the team returning from Ann Arbor.
Seventeen years later, in the wake of one of the biggest scandals in NCAA history, Joe Paterno, the longest-tenured and most winningest coach in D-I college football, was fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees late Wednesday night.
My parents will have to correct me on this, but by the time I was 3, there were four non-Sesame Street people I could name if they appeared on television. One of them was Paterno, and he was the only one that mattered.
I was born in State College, Pa. to two foreign engineering graduate students who quickly learned to embrace the football fever that defines the small college town — even if huddling with 100,000 Nittany Lion faithfuls at Beaver Stadium in November will also get you a different kind of fever.
Over the weekend, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office filed criminal charges against Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State defensive coordinator, for 40 counts of sexual abuse of children with nine different victims. A sickening, 23-page grand jury investigation alleges that Sandusky would bring boys from a program for troubled youth through the Penn State facilities. In one particular incident in 2002, Sandusky was caught performing anal sex on a 10-year-old boy in the facility by a graduate assistant, who informed Paterno, who then reported the incident to Penn State’s athletic director, Tim Curley. The issue was never brought to the authorities.
Curley and Gary Schultz, the university’s senior vice president for finance and business, have also been charged for failing to report the sexual assault to authorities and for lying to the grand jury about the incident. Additionally, the trustees decided to oust Penn State President Graham Spanier for approving Curley’s handling of the affair in 2002.
This is where Paterno comes in. He reported the incident to Curley, therefore absolving himself from legal fault. But how one of the most highly revered public figures in the country failed to notify the authorities or even follow up on the incident as Sandusky popped in and out of the university’s facilities for the next nine years is what has shattered the previously unshatterable and questioned the previously unquestionable.
College athletics is a compliance-based industry; Officials aren’t paid for doing what is right but rather paid for doing what is not wrong. And as a society, we tend to ride along, shifting our frame of reference from the moral to the legal.
But every once in a while, an inhumane, stomach-turning incident such as this one can re-shift that focus. Paterno made a conscious decision to aim higher than the illegal but not higher than the immoral.
This is what crushes people.
Paterno’s reputation was never solely based on a winning percentage. It was how he weaved character and academics through the seams of the navy blue-and-white fabric and always seemed to be the one teaching and inspiring other coaches to do the same.
It took 46 years to create one of the most respected and recognizable brands in the country, and certain individuals deemed it too risky to derail it, especially considering the fickle nature of our perception-based higher education system.
The institutional similarities of Penn State and Texas are many, ranging from similar undergraduate enrollment numbers to a large football stadium and from similar U.S. News and World Report rankings to similar Playboy’s Party School rankings. Penn State’s arena is called the Bryce Jordan Center, named after a Penn State president who is also a former UT president.
But to ask, “What if this happened at Texas?” does a disservice to the comparison. “JoePa” and the Nittany Lions aren’t part of the town’s identity — it is the identity.
It has the kind of power that can win over two foreign graduate engineering students with no background in football.
I think back to the hazy memory of 3-year-old me as part of the crowd ready to give a hero’s welcome to the victorious team. I don’t remember if Paterno made a speech that night. I just picture the legend who, no matter how much older I got, seemed to stay the same, pacing the sidelines with his navy blue jacket and long out-of-style glasses. And now, all I’m left saying is:
Say it ain’t so, Joe.
Say it ain’t so.