How can Penn State move on?

This week, the Paterno family announced its lawsuit against the NCAA. Their stated goals are to overturn the sanctions levied against Penn State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Certain parties have stated their disapproval and disagreement with this lawsuit, arguing that it will do more harm than good and leave Penn State trapped in the past. They believe that the students, faculty, staff, and alumni should just “move on.” I feel this is a quick, easy and cowardly way to approach the issue. Joe Paterno dedicated the vast majority of his life to Penn State and its students. He deserves better than to have his character smeared, especially when he is no longer able to defend himself.

Joe Paterno began his coaching career at Penn State as an assistant to Rip Engle in 1950. He took over as head coach in 1966 and coached every season until his unceremonious dismissal in 2011. He gave 61 years of his life to Penn State. When most people turn 61 years of age, they start thinking about retirement. After 61 years of doing what he loved, and at the ripe young age of 85, he still had no intentions of retiring. Why did he stay? It wasn’t money. God knows he could have lived comfortably on his pension. He stayed because he was doing what he loved for the university he loved.

JoePa’s love wasn’t just football. It’s true he loved the sport, and it showed every time he took the field with his team. He demanded success, and he got it, winning national championships. Unlike most football coaches, he didn’t just use that success to build his football team. He worked with the university to translate that success on the football field to success in academics. He used his position as head football coach to make Penn State University one of the finest academic institutions. If it weren’t for his efforts, I highly doubt Penn State would be the university it is today.

Then, in November of 2011, Jerry Sandusky, one of JoePa’s former assistant coaches, was arrested for sexually abusing young children. We all know the story. He was tried and convicted and still maintains his innocence. Many wondered, myself included, how JoePa, who appeared to be part of every aspect of Penn State, could not know what Jerry Sandusky was doing? The answer to that is impossible for most to comprehend. Most people see pedophiles and child sex predators as the pervert hiding in the playground bushes or driving the van with “FREE CANDY” spray-painted on the side. While it’s true those people exist, we often ignore the most dangerous predator – the “nice guy.” This is the person we think we know so well. This is the person we trust with our children every day – the teacher, the coach, the youth pastor – the person we believe, we know, would never hurt our children. Why do we believe this? Because that’s what they want us to believe. Jim Clemente, an expert FBI profiler of child sex abusers who himself was once a victim, describes these predators in great detail. He talks about their grooming process, how they build trust not just in individuals, but entire communities. That’s what Jerry Sandusky did. He built so much trust among so many experts, he managed to adopt young children. He not only fooled Joe Paterno; he fooled lawyers, judges, psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers, clergy, and many others. Joe Paterno was a victim as well, just as everyone else was who was fooled by Jerry Sandusky’s grooming.

The fallout from the scandal hit hard. Joe Paterno was unceremoniously fired by the Board of Trustees who couldn’t even look him in the eye. After 61 years of dedication, he was fired via telephone. The same Board of Trustees  then hired Louis Freeh to investigate. His subsequent report was quick to point fingers and assign blame but had no real basis in fact. He relied on hearsay and conjecture to back up his opinions. When called upon to back up or defend his report, he has repeatedly refused to do so. The NCAA then used this report as a basis with which to heavily penalize Penn State. The Paterno family hired their own investigators, among them Jim Clemente mentioned above, who found serious flaws in the Freeh Report. Again, Freeh has refused to defend his own report, simply stating that the Paterno Report is “self-serving.”

Now, certain parties, including Bill O’Brien, the current head football coach at Penn state, would prefer that we all just “move on” and accept what happened. While I understand why he feels that way, I don’t feel that we as Penn State can without acknowledging what was done wrong. Bill O’Brien inherited a legacy. He inherited a football team attached to a university that still believed in “Success with Honor.” I have the greatest respect for what he did and is still doing with the team. No one expected them to win a game last season, much less come away with a winning record, but they did it. Bill O’Brien gave the students and alumni hope. He’s the future of the football team. It’s in his best interest to “move on” with his football team, and I hope he does.

I can’t. Knowing the kind of man Joe Paterno was, I can’t stand to see his reputation swept under the rug and forget all the good things he did for my alma mater. I do not believe for a minute that Joe Paterno was perfect or a saint. He had his flaws, just like the rest of us. I also do not believe that he could have seen Jerry Sandusky for who he truly was, just like the rest of us. It’s easy for those on the outside to say that they would have known and would have done something. You’re wrong. You would have been fooled by Jerry Sandusky just like everyone else. You would have enabled him just as much as Joe Paterno did. Why? Because that’s the kind of predator Jerry Sandusky is. He’s your best friend, your buddy. How do I know? Because I knew one. I was in the process of being groomed when I was young by a security guard at the hospital where my grandmother worked. I was lucky, though, in that he was caught before he touched me. But I was fooled by him, and so was my family until the end. No, I can’t move on knowing that a good, descent man was unfairly accused, and neither should his family. I’d hope that if it were me, my family would care enough to defend my reputation after I’m gone. 

I hope JoePa’s family wins. I hope they succeed in showing the rest of the world the JoePa we from Penn State remember. Move on? Maybe you can, Bill O’Brien. The rest of us would like to see you do it with Penn State’s reputation restored. You focus on the future. We want our history back. Some pedophile stole it from us, and I don’t think that’s right.

I miss you, JoePa. We are, because you were, Penn State.

Read the Freeh Report for yourself here. 

Read the Paterno Report for yourself here.