During my undergraduate years at Penn State, from 1974 to 1978, I never attended a football game; never wore the blue and white in support of the team, never tailgated, never made the trek from my dorm in the West Halls to the stadium near the East Halls, never saw Joe Paterno pacing back and forth along the sideline. And yet, I grew to respect the man, based upon one incident that spoke volumes about him and his priorities.
One of Paterno's players wanted to break with the tradition of football team members living in the East Hall dormitories, by moving into the West Hall dorms. Although such a living arrangement would put the student across campus from the stadium and team practice facilities, the coach supported the young man's decision. But not unconditionally.
First, he had a little tete-a-tete with the student's roommate.
As in any small community, news of the coach's conversation spread throughout West Halls like the proverbial wildfire.
First came the negatives: no drinking, no drugs, no partying. Then the positives: their room was to be quiet and conducive to studying, he would make sure his roommate studied every day and was in bed by 10:00 p.m. Any infraction of any of those rules, and his roommate would have to move back to East Halls. Any drop in the roommate's GPA, and he would have to move back to East Halls.
Even the non-athletic and football obtuse among us grew to respect Paterno because he made it clear that the students he coached were at Penn State to get an education, not just to win games. At a time when other schools were using all sorts of enticements, lavish living arrangements, and questionable grading practices to recruit and keep players, we shared a fierce pride in Paterno's demand that his players be treated like regular joes, live in standard dormitory rooms, and earn the grades that would ensure their future off-field success.
This is the Paterno I remember. The Paterno whose disrespectful, uncalled for dismissal led to rioting by outraged students a short time ago.
The outrage over Paterno's firing is appropriate. So is the outrage over the University's failure to corral, prosecute, and expunge the child rapist in its midst. Despite the opinions of commentators, pundits, and child advocates to the contrary, the two forms of outrage are not mutually exclusive. Support for Paterno in no way disrepects the rape victims.
However, trying to mask prior institutional inertia by sacrificing an icon demonstrates that the University is willing to sacrifice and disrespect anyone to protect its own interests. Joe Paterno is just the most recent victim of bureaucratic heartlessness in a list that includes the young prey of Jerry Sandusky.
At any point prior to the issuance of the grand jury findings, the University could have banished Sandusky from its campus. But doing so would have required the University to get involved in some form of legal proceedings that, as current developments demonstrate, would devolve into a "he said - he said" contest. For if one thing is clear from the grand jury findings, no one witness to an alleged impropriety by Jerry Sandusky had a corroborating witness to the same act.
The rape witnessed by Mike McQueary was not witnessed by any other person. The incidents witnessed by individual janitors was not witnessed by any other janitor or person. Indeed, the janitors never reported what they saw, fearing that to do so would cost them their jobs.
Guess they got that right.
The janitors well understood the hierarchical system of the University. In the great ocean of campus life, the janitors knew they were the krill, to be swallowed, chewed up, and spit out by the great leviathans of the sea. One can hope that adults would sacrifice all to protect the well being of children. But in the real world, the krill are swimming as hard as they can to survive long enough to provide for themselves and their own offspring. Only the extremely stupid, or extremely heroic, bucks their place in the food chain to save someone else's child.
Not surprisingly, lawyers who represent employees who blow the whistle on wrongdoing by their employers have fought for laws that protect whistle blowers from losing their jobs or suffering other sanctions imposed by the employers. In addition, laws that mandate educators, health care providers, and others who work with children to report suspected abuse provide immunity to the reporters.
Apparently, it is unclear whether, in the relevant time periods, Pennsylvania law either required Paterno's bosses to report Sandusky's suspected abuse, or provided immunity to University administrators making a report. Pennsylvania lawmakers are rushing now to fine tune the requirements of the reporting law for that state.
If the janitors, McQueary, or Paterno wanted to force Sandusky's termination and banishment, and seek an investigation by outside criminal justice authorities, they would be bucking the University hierarchy and jeopardizing their jobs and careers. For if anything is apparent from the timeline set forth in the grand jury's findings, it is that the University was in stealth mode until the last possible moment.
Only then, when the whole sordid affair broke and captured nationwide attention, did the University switch from stealth mode to damage control.
Unfortunately for Paterno, the magnitude of the problem required that the University make a huge statement of contrition. Unfortunately for Paterno, to most of the country if not the world, he IS Penn State University. Unfortunately for Paterno, firing a college president or other bureaucrat whose name was unknown to the public would not have the same impact as stripping an iconic coach of his team, title, and career.
For the good of the University, a titan had to fall. That titan is Joe Paterno.