Open Mouth, Insert Football: Penn State correctly cleans house

Ben Morrow
Sports columnist 

If I’m going to weigh in on the Penn State mess that you’ve no doubt heard about by now that has led to the firing of college football legend Joe Paterno, I have to preface my article by saying three things.

First, people accused of crimes in America are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Twenty-four hour tabloid journalism hasn’t changed that fact, and we would do well to remember it. For the record, everyone who has been arrested in the Sandusky fiasco has claimed innocence.

Second, I usually don’t like calling for people’s jobs, even those of public figures. I think people do it way too often for silly reasons because it doesn’t cost them anything to do so. Even public figures have lives to live and families to feed. Demanding strangers be fired is easy. Making the hard decisions is not so easy.

Third, and with the first statement in full view, I’m going to proceed with the assumption the Pennsylvania police and grand jury were justified when they indicted former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for, among other charges, 15 counts of child molestation over eight years, with at least one instance allegedly witnessed on school property.

With all that said, I have one message for the Board of Regents at Penn State University: You did the right thing firing school president Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno. You had one chance to get out in front of this thing, and you did.

Make no mistake. Paterno should not have survived this debacle in my opinion. The 84 year-old ball coach is going to end his career on the worst possible note. But don’t forget that Spanier was informed of the alleged incidents around the same time as then athletic director Tim Curley and former senior vice president Gary Schultz, both of whom are currently out of a job and under indictments for perjury.

I’m glad the university president didn’t get to fly under the radar. Much like U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Fast and Furious weapons debacle, Spanier was in charge when everything went down. Like Holder, he either had no control of the men underneath him, or he purposefully turned a blind eye to illegal activity. Like Holder, he was either complicit or inept. Like Holder, Spanier should have been unceremoniously canned.

Penn State had only one chance to do the right thing and salvage its reputation, but that could not have happened with the current figureheads in place.

According to police, Paterno did not call the authorities himself or use his public position to stand on behalf of children reportedly abused under his tenure. He simply told his superior.

When a graduate assistant walked in on a child rape in progress in a university shower in 2002 and went straight to JoePa, the coach told Curley and left it at that.

In fact, according to the grand jury indictment, no one from the university attempted to identify the child in question or contact officials.

State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said that Paterno and others within the administration did not break any laws by failing to report the incident. Noonan, however, was careful to publically remind administrators of “the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child,” Noonan said. “I think you have the moral responsibility … whether you’re a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call us. It is a case about children who have had their innocence stolen from them, in a culture that did nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others.”

According to police, Sandusky’s alleged abuse of young boys continued for six years after administrators, including Paterno and Spanier, decided to pass the buck instead of calling the cops. They turned a blind eye and allowed Sandusky to hang around instead of sounding the alarm. Although they are not implicit in Sandusky’s alleged crimes, they allowed the opportunity for abuse to continue. Spanier was at the helm of the ship. Spanier was rightfully thrown overboard with everyone else.

JoePa wants us to think he is shocked and was fooled by Sandusky as if this is the first he has heard of this. Some fans mourn that this story came out the same year JoePa broke Eddie Robinson’s record for the most wins as a NCAA Division I football coach.

Don’t forget that JoePa has been testifying to the grand jury since more than a year ago, and the incident about which he and President Spanier are being criticized occurred nine years ago.

Meanwhile, Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Wetzel reported Monday Sandusky was seen working out in the Penn State weight room last week. This hardly sounds like a guy banned from all association with the program. University officials, from Spanier to Paterno, have been blissfully (and I believe purposefully) ignorant.

Plausible deniability, however, is precisely what JoePa and Spanier wish to claim. The truth is, they didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. And because Penn St.’s administration cared more about building a monster football program than being morally accountable, they created an atmosphere of enabling that allowed more children to be abused on their watch. It was up to administration, then, to clean house.

It was time for everyone to go. Sandusky, Curley, Schultz, Spanier, Paterno and anyone else who knew about this and didn’t do everything possible to stop it. It’s the only way Penn State could wipe the slate clean and move on.

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