Idolization of Paterno does not excuse his alleged role in child abuse case

In the past month, media outlets have been buzzing with the news of Jerry Sandusky’s Nov. 5 arrest, following a grand jury report outlining 40 criminal charges which include involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of a child. Sandusky, who founded a charity to help troubled youth called the Second Mile and served as the football defensive coordinator at Pennsylvania State University for 32 years, has publicly declared his innocence in an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas, denying any allegations of being a pedophile.

While Sandusky’s case certainly deserves the media attention is has received, especially given the number of years these allegations have remained a secret, there is one particular aspect that warrants further examination.

On Nov. 9, Joe Paterno was dismissed from his position as Head Coach at Penn State University, the same day he announced his intent to retire at the end of the season. Subsequently, thousands of students and community members rallied in protest in front of the administration building, chanting “We want Joe!” laying on the ground to prevent police from removing them, and destroying property. Many also stood outside of Paterno’s home, kneeling to show their respect and loyalty.

Although Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly has stated that Paterno is not a target of the investigation, his dismissal was unquestionably appropriate due to his alleged negligence.

According to the grand jury report, Paterno’s role began when Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant at the time, allegedly told Paterno that he saw Sandusky raping a young boy in the locker room shower the night before. Paterno reported the incident to Tim Curley, the Athletic Director. However, the grand jury report states that Paterno’s description to Curley minimized the event to “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy.” Curley has since responded that he was under the impression that the conduct was merely nonsexual “horsing around.” This discrepancy in the reporting of the facts is precisely why Paterno’s dismissal is justified.

Given his implication, it also necessary to consider the kind of culture that exists within the Penn State football community for such loyalty, as demonstrated by protestors, to arise.

Penn State is located in the small city of State College in Centre County in Pennsylvania, a former industrial town which thrives as a direct result of the university’s presence. Penn State’s football program has been described as the economic lifeblood of the community, providing it with significant revenue ($72.7 million during the 2010/2011 school year) and cultivating the reputation of both the college and community as an epicenter for college sports.

Paterno has been instrumental in building this reputation, holding the record for the most bowl appearances (37) and wins (24). He was named Coach of the Year by the AFCA five different times and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame on May 16, 2006. Paterno has also contributed significant amounts of money to the campus itself, raising nearly $14 million for a library which now holds his name.

All of these aspects have contributed to the community regarding Paterno as a legend. This near divinization is evident on campus in a number of ways, from erecting a statue in his honour, to naming an ice cream flavor, Peachy Paterno, after him in the local shop.

Although Paterno has contributed to the Penn State community in numerous positive ways, this idolization is highly problematic and dangerous. The riots in support of Paterno following his dismissal show me that the community has built up his reputation so much that they either ignore his alleged digression or simply assume that he is incapable of any kind of wrongdoing. What these protestors fail to realize, however, is that no reputation can or should excuse his alleged negligence in reporting a serious crime. Believing anything to the contrary places select individuals in positions of extreme power, which not only places them above the law, but also paves the way for possible future incidents. Those who still claim that Paterno was wrongfully dismissed need to consider the strength of their loyalty and determine exactly how much it will excuse.

Editor’s Note: Headline has been updated since original publishing date.

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