Last night Penn State University trustees fired head coach Joe Paterno for his seeming complicity in and indifference to a child molestation incident in 2002. The university president was also fired. The firing came just hours after Paterno announced his intention to retire at the end of the season.
In 2002, then–graduate assistant Mike McQueary reported to Paterno that he saw defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky raping a young boy in the athletic department showers. McQueary did nothing further, and Paterno reported the incident only to the athletic director and a university vice president. No one notified police. On November 4, 2011, Sandusky was indicted on “dozens of counts of child sexual abuse. A grand jury statement reveal[ed] the gristly details of multiple accounts of alleged sexual acts on children …”
When first notified of his firing, Paterno reportedly said, “You give your life to this place, and that’s how you’re treated.”
I was never a Paterno fan, but I understood how legendary he was in college football and I had some understanding of the vaunted Penn State ethos. Frankly, I had no idea the 84-year-old was still the head coach, but given his status, I was stunned to learn this man had not immediately reported and taken decisive action against Sandusky. It’s tragic that such a storied career ended with a firing in the midst of a very ugly scandal, but it appears Paterno stayed far too long, believed his own press releases, and thought of himself as someone too big to fall.
No man’s reputation, no football program, no university is more important than the safety of our children. Paterno was trusted by parents across the country to be an example, a counselor to and trainer of impressionable young men in their formative years. Yet, in his silence, he was also the knowing protector and enabler of an habitual child molester.
And if that weren’t appalling enough, Penn State students immediately rallied and rioted in “JoePa’s” defense. I fully understand student loyalty and dedication to a popular head coach and a great football tradition; I’m a University of Oklahoma alum. But a reaction like this when those students knew what Paterno did — or didn’t do — is truly sad. It speaks to the worst in college students, not what is — or was — the best about Penn State.