No one made the right call at Penn State

Posted: November 09, 2011

OLD PEOPLE are not great sleepers, as a rule. Whether it is a physical phenomenon or a nightly dance with the looming inevitable probably depends upon the person.

In Joe Paterno's house, we can only wonder. The lights go off and the thick lenses are laid upon the night table and the most private of private thoughts fills his head. Can he sleep? How?

The man is a legend in his time, and that is not sporting hyperbole. He is supposed to stand for something more than sports; just ask him. And even if a percentage of the Paterno myth was always just that - myth, spun lovingly by the blue-and-white public relations machine - many of us do believe, deep down, even beneath our cynicism, that the man spent more time on the right side of the ledger than most.

With that, choose your legacy.

Is it: "He did the legal minimum."

Or is it: "He told his supervisor."

As if monuments have supervisors.

You wonder if it all runs through his head at night now. Faced with what everyone has acknowledged to be a credible eyewitness allegation of, at minimum, inappropriate sexual conduct with a minor by former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, Paterno did not call the police. He called his athletic director. And when nothing was done by the AD, and another university vice president, and by president Graham Spanier as well - other than telling Sandusky not to bring kids into the football facility anymore - Paterno stood mute.

For years and years, until the grand jury called.

For who knows how many more alleged assaults.

It takes your breath away.

I keep sitting here thinking there must be something we don't know because these people so clearly screwed this up, so clearly and so fully, that you cannot believe it happened. But I don't think there is anything. I think it is just the arrogance of insularity.

We are now witnessing what happens when you are in the business of myth-making, and when you think you have built the walls high enough. The tragedy is obvious, and the fact that you are talking about kids is emotionally wrenching, and it is all because of the culture of a place where janitors were afraid to report what they saw for fear of losing their jobs, and a graduate assistant went to the coach instead of the police after what he saw, and a coach went to his boss instead of the police after what he heard.

This is going to end quickly. That much seems obvious now. This is all over but the final announcement that Paterno and university president Spanier are leaving. Has to be, right? The New York Times is reporting that Paterno will not coach next season, and that the end may come sooner than that. On Twitter, Paterno's son Scott wrote just before 1 p.m., "NYT report premature. No discussions about retirement with JVP."

Still, when Spanier canceled Paterno's weekly news conference yesterday afternoon, it revealed that business could no longer be usual anymore. This is a public university that depends upon public funding for its very survival, and the public is sickened by this, and there is no convincing defense.

How could no one have done the right thing? How could no one have stood up? When that happens, through the allegations and through the decades, the culture is the issue. It is why they all have to go.

History will be the judge here. Time will offer the best perspective. But here is hoping that no one soon forgets the terrible feeling that is in their stomachs whenever they think about the kids that Sandusky was allegedly able to abuse because no one at Penn State was willing to take a risk.

We can only guess if Paterno feels any of that in those most private of private moments. We might never know. But what must it be like to be Joe Paterno today, after six decades at Penn State? What must it be like to wonder, after everything, if the asterisk will be so big that it blots out the sun?


Send email to

hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

www.philly.com/TheIdleRich. For recent columns go to

www.philly.com/RichHofmann.

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