In defense of Joe Paterno

Posted: July 25, 2012

Louis Freeh's report on Penn State's response to Jerry Sandusky's crimes against children has now led to serious NCAA sanctions and the removal of a monument to coach Joe Paterno. The report alleges a cover-up by the quartet of former university president Graham B. Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Paterno.

But the report itself shows the key decisions were made by only three of them. There is almost no evidence that they consulted substantially with Paterno.

The report first considers the 1998 accusations that Sandusky showered with and molested a boy involved in his charity, the Second Mile. Authorities ultimately did not pursue the case, partly because the investigation was mishandled. But nothing in the report shows Paterno was in any way involved in the investigation or that he attempted to influence it.

The only mention of the coach in this regard are two e-mails from Curley: "I have touched base with the coach. Keep us posted. Thanks." And, a week later, "Anything new in this department? Coach [Paterno] is anxious to know where it stands." Nothing in the report suggests any further involvement by Paterno. In fact, it concludes: "After Curley's initial updates to Paterno, the available record is not clear as to how the conclusion of the Sandusky investigation was conveyed to Paterno."

While the report suggests that Paterno knew "everything that was going on," it's silent as to the nature of any discussions involving Paterno. What the coach knew is therefore purely a matter of speculation, although "touched base" doesn't suggest an in-depth review.

Given this background, Paterno's response to the 2001 incident witnessed by a coaching assistant Mike McQueary is far less outrageous than has been asserted. McQueary testified to a grand jury that he told Paterno he witnessed something "extremely sexual in nature" but did not go into "very much detail." Paterno's testimony was that he understood the conduct was "sexual in nature" but did not press for details because McQueary "was very upset."

Paterno called Curley two days later and met with him and Schultz. The only report of this conversation is Schultz's. In his grand jury testimony, Schultz said it was his impression that Sandusky's behavior was inappropriate and that Paterno wanted to bring it to his and Curley's attention. In spite of this, Schultz did think the allegations were serious or criminal.

Public relations

The report shows that Schultz, Curley, and later Spanier wanted to minimize the incident to protect the university. It also shows that Paterno was not an active participant in the alleged cover-up.

The report details many meetings among Curley, Schultz, and Spanier, who expressed concern about "public relations." The plan they arrived at was that Curley would talk to Paterno and to Sandusky, and, barring a confession by Sandusky, would indicate he was going to notify the Second Mile and the state Department of Public Welfare.

After Curley had a discussion with Paterno, he wrote an e-mail to Schultz and Spanier saying, "After giving the matter more thought and talking it over with [Paterno] yesterday — I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps. I am having trouble with going to everyone but the person involved." He adds that he wants to talk to Sandusky, discuss the incident, and get his cooperation in notifying the charity and state officials "at some point." Spanier e-mailed his agreement to Curley and Schultz, calling the proposed approach "humane."

This Curley e-mail constitutes the only mention of a contact with Paterno after the coach's initial report to Curley and Schultz. The e-mail is most important for what it does not contain — namely, any information concerning the substance of the discussion with Paterno or Paterno's reaction to Curley's proposal. It does not state what advice, if any, Paterno gave. Nor does Curley attribute his being "uncomfortable" to anything Paterno said.

Daily vilification

The report shows that although Paterno was a powerful man at the university, in this instance he let his superiors (at least in the official chain of command) make the calls. He was not in the loop.

No one can deny, in hindsight, that Paterno should have tried to be more involved in the matter. But despite his stature on campus, his job was in fact to coach football, not to investigate the misconduct of a longtime friend who was no longer part of the football program. Curley, Schultz, and Spanier had assumed the responsibility to handle the case, and Paterno was probably happy that they had. Most of us would have done the same thing.

Freeh's report notes that Paterno wanted to cooperate in the investigation but died before he could. So he is not here to rebut the innuendo that is endemic to the report.

Paterno had a virtually unblemished record over the course of his long, outstanding career. He was regarded as a paragon. But he was a human being, and human beings make mistakes — mistakes that look worse when viewed in retrospect.

He does not, however, deserve daily vilification in the media. And he does not deserve to have his reputation, built over a lifetime, destroyed because he didn't interfere when those who supposedly had the responsibility and expertise to handle the Sandusky matter failed miserably to do so.

David C. Harrison is a Philadelphia attorney and Penn State alumnus.

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