North of the 400

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Final thoughts on Joe Paterno, the Freeh Report and Penn State

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A while ago, when Joe Paterno died, I wrote a few words about him, his legacy and the series of horrific crimes that took place at Penn State. That was then. Now, in the light of the just-released Freeh Report, all those words seem so hopelessly naïve, even if I still agree with what I said.

The essentials of what I wrote I still agree with: Paterno was tested by what happened and he shrank from the challenge. His failings should define his career at Penn State. But the scope of what happened, the depth of his knowledge and the amount of people that could have done something, anything, and didn’t, is staggering.

 When Paterno died, the question was what he knew. Back in January, we knew he’d reported allegations of Sandusky’s behavior to his bosses but hadn’t gone to the police. That likely was in 2002, two years after Sandusky retired. Before his death, Paterno released a statement, reading in part: “I did what I was supposed to do,” a statement true only in the broadest legal sense and not at all in even the barest moral sense.

But the Freeh report offers a more disturbing picture of a school where nobody wanted to rock the boat and incur the displeasure of Paterno. In 1998, a story about Sandusky abusing children came to Penn State officials and the police. But Sandusky was never prosecuted and the only action taken was a warning for Sandusky to not to take children into showers anymore. Two years later, a janitor saw Sandusky with another child in the showers, but didn’t do anything for fear of his job.

To me, most damning of all is how Paterno knew about Sandusky as far back as 1998. One might remember how he told Sally Jenkins quite the opposite in his final interview. To wit: “You know it wasn’t like it was something everybody in the building knew about… nobody knew about it.” But the report contains emails where people mention telling Paterno, that he’s curious for more information.

Page 51 of the Freeh report damns the Penn State coach, saying he knew “everything that was going on.” It wasn’t until earlier this year, nearly 14 years later, that Sandusky was convicted of any crime.

Paterno fancied himself as something of a student of the classics, especially Virgil. I recently read another work out of the Roman Empire that seems closer: Procopius’ Secret Histories. There, the Byzantine historian lays out the misdeeds of Justinian and Theodora, the hell that was their reign: gangs in the streets, people put to death for the most minor indiscretions – Edward Gibbon once reckoned something like 100 million died during their reign – and a culture of fear and excess, where if you crossed either of them, you vanished, and if you pleased them you could get away with anything.

But even that’s something of a stretch in the light of the Freeh report. The implications it’ll have on the future of Penn State are almost beyond reckoning: never before in college football has anything like happened. The closest I can think of is the abuses that happened at Maple Leaf Gardens decades ago. But the cynicism isn’t quite there, that those abuses were overlooked for the same selfish reasons: winning games, keeping a program clean-looking, protecting the legacy of a famous and longtime coach.

I think the report bears it bluntly: there’s never been anything quite like this before. If we’re lucky, there never again will be.

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Written by M.

July 13, 2012 at 11:19 am

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