The Shame Of Joe Paterno

Towards the end of the immortal baseball movie Bull Durham, Annie Savoy reflects that “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.” What she meant is that for the men who play it, the game can be mundane, difficult, frustrating, and an obligation more than it is a joy. But watching the story of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s insufficient action when he learned that his former defensive coordinator and coach emeritus of the team had assaulted a child in Penn State facilities unfold, culminating in his firing late last night, I’ve been reflecting on another sense of that statement. No matter how important the work of sports is, whether economically to schools and regions, or emotionally to fans, it’s work. And if you’re incapable of performing it in ways that comport with the law, the ethics of your profession, and basic decency, it should be totally uncontroversial for you to be dismissed.

Jerry Sandusky raped a child in Penn State football facilities. It took three and a half weeks for Sandusky to be banned from the locker room after he was caught committing sexual assault. According to the Grand Jury report on the charges against Sandusky, Paterno didn’t even attend a follow-up meeting on Sandusky’s conduct after the witness to that rape reported it to him. Even if someone under Paterno was responsible for handing out and taking back locker room keys and the rights that go with them, Paterno has some responsibility for the facilities that were a part of his program, and for whether or not the team continues to give offices, facilities access, and honorifics associated with the program to people who are no longer staff or players. You’re not providing a professional environment for your players if your locker room is a place where children are being abused. You’re not providing a safe environment for your players if you let a sex offender in their locker room, even if he’s a pedophile and unlikely to target any of them. And ESPN’s Chris Fowler made the point last night that by not encouraging or directly helping the witness go to the police, Paterno sent the wrong message to his graduate assistant — and to people everywhere — that the honorable thing to do is to keep quiet to protect powerful perpetrators, rather than to report crimes perpetrated against particularly vulnerable victims.

And yet, people seem furious at the Penn State Board of Trustees for doing the decent, professional thing and firing Paterno. Some Penn State students rallied in support of Paterno at his house yesterday (others with an appropriate sense of events held a vigil for Sandusky’s victims), unaware that the sister of one of Sandusky’s victims attends school with them. When Penn State Board of Trustees Vice Chairman John Surma faced reporters after the Board’s decisions, some of the questions were vituperative. One wanted to know why the Board couldn’t let Paterno ride out the season and finish his career “with a little bit of dignity.” Another wanted to know what Surma had to say about “the perception that the Board has been gunning for Coach Paterno since ’04” and was simply using the scandal to push out someone they unfairly disliked. And I understand how shocking it must be to have your trust and love for a man who helped you win a lot of football games and appeared to have an appropriate sense of the balance between sports and academics betrayed. But Joe Paterno’s right to do exactly what he pleased makes the fact that he didn’t do more than fulfill his minimum legal obligations particularly distressing, and like all the other people responsible here (and there are many) seems to me, I think he’s lost the right to dictate the terms of his retirement.

Joe Paterno’s right to his dignity is not more valuable than the right of children not to be assaulted by adults.

Joe Paterno’s right to employment if he can’t perform up to standards is not more important than the right of Penn State to run a safe campus.

If Joe Paterno’s highest priority is truly providing quality education, his loyalty to those values should have been higher than his loyalty to a man whose conduct represents a hideous rot in those values. You only stand for what you say you represent if you stand for it when it’s hard.

I cannot possibly imagine a cause so mighty and righteous that it outweighs shrugging aside child abuse and child assault. Certainly not football. College sports may be a business with deeply engaged consumers. But it’s still just a business. And Joe Paterno is just a man, subject to the normal rules of accountability and decency. These are the basic facts of which moral educations are made. Some of us, apparently, need remedial lessons.