A solemn sadness permeates through the common ways of Penn State, displacing the nostalgic history that was once Joe Paterno, and the Nittany Lions. Where there was once a deep sense of pride, there is now feelings of shame and anger, emotions working in tandem to choke out the constant celebration the school had once known. Shame and disgrace silence the joy of two undefeated seasons, two National Championships, and one of the highest graduation rates in the country. Anger and outrage make the countless bowl appearances meaningless, every win tainted by a callous lack of compassion, every victory secured at the expense of the innocent. The crimes against the trusting dissolving all that was once held dear in State College, Pennsylvania.
Paterno, often referred to as JoePa, was once the symbol for integrity in collegiate sports. The leader of the Nittany Lions for nearly half a century, Paterno was a true example of a living legend. We all grew up seeing JoePa stalk the sidelines, a permanent fixture as the decades went by. The mystique surrounding his program was evident, and no one ever thought twice as Joe Paterno became Penn State and State College came to mean JoePa. It was an incredible thing to witness, to see history being made, year after year. It would have been a story of substance to tell our sports addicted grandchildren, something that we could proudly say we were a part of, even if it was from the comfort of our couch on a Saturday afternoon. It would have been…
Instead, Penn State is now the crime scene, the place where trusting boys with dreams of big time football were taken advantage of, coerced into sacrificing their innocence, and forced to remain silent by the people they were supposed to look up to. It is a place where the good of the program was placed before the good of the people, regardless of atrocities being demanded of the less fortunate.
In a special investigative report, former FBI Director, Louis Freeh, cited:“A culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community” and “A striking lack of empathy for the child abuse victims by the most senior leaders of the University.”
The fact that the football program meant so much cannot be such a surprise. Throughout the United States, football programs are the life blood of the community. From Pop Warner, to the NFL, we love our gridiron gladiators. Local heroes depart in hopes of continued fame, hearing our cheers as they make their journey through each level of play. Football is part of America, and to find an institution as storied as Penn State is guilty of placing the program on a pedestal should come as no surprise.
The lack of empathy, on the other hand, is just as despicable an act as the actual crime itself. Child molestation is a horrible and unforgivable crime. There is no excuse that can justify the sexual abuse of another person, especially when that other person is a minor child, and Jerry Sandusky was doing just that.
The thought of Sandusky having the freedom to spend decades pursuing his twisted fantasies is disturbing enough, but the realization that his deeds were done under the watchful eye of Paterno and the Penn State leadership, escalates the offense from simply the depraved actions of a sexual deviant, to a group crime spree, with the most powerful men in State College the ring leaders.
Every time an investigation was led astray, each of those leaders violated those young men. Every time they looked the other way, they urged Sandusky on.
The Freeh Report makes it very clear that Paterno was fully aware of what was going on under his roof. He was fully aware and he did nothing to stop it. Emails asking about the status of the investigation show Paterno was only concerned with the containment of the situation. Paterno was only worried about how Sandusky’s sickness would reflect on him and his dynasty.
It is a terribly sad realization. It is horrible to see one of sports grandest monuments fall under the weight of its leaders misdeeds. It is depressing to watch the hard work of so many student athletes become tarnished by the blight of Paterno’s silence.
Maybe JoePa was afraid of the negative impact such a story would bring to his program. Maybe he was worried about the next year’s recruits. Whatever he was worrying about, it is fair for us to say, he was not worrying about the victims. He refused to be concerned with the victims they knew about, dismissed the one’s they didn’t know about, and turned an ignorant eye towards future attacks.
It is this blatant display of self preservation that shifts the memory of Joe Paterno and his legacy. It is this complete disregard for others that removes Paterno from his position as an iconic sports figure. It was his cowardice and misplaced loyalties that now have him labeled as a criminal accomplice.
Paterno’s legend has fallen to ruin and society has wasted very little time distancing itself from his memory. Statues crafted in the likeness of the old coach are now the subject of destructive debates and organizations are removing their affiliation with his name. The latest show of distate towards the former icon was the removal of a halo surrounding Paterno’s head in a mural. Despite the halo being a representation of death, rather than the subjects integrity, the artist felt it was still too close to uplifting Paterno as a good man, something he was no longer willing to do.
Everyone is faced with making tough choices in their life. Every one of us is responsible for our own moral decisions. None of us are perfect, but when it comes to sexual molestation, I would hope that we would all show more empathy than Paterno and his cohorts did.
The tragic conclusion of JoePa’s legacy shows the importance of standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. It is a basic truth Paterno must have forgotten: When you are responsible for the protection and care of others, the worst mistake you could ever make is putting your needs before theirs.
Jeff Everette is a featured columnist for RantSports.com, covering the NFL and NBA. You can follow him on twitter @jeverettesports, or subscribe to Jeff Everette-RantSports.com on both Facebook and Google+ for all of his latest articles, opinions, and rants.