Listening to the feeble whispers of former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno in his first interview since his firing — and the last before his death — does not change my opinion of the man who could have done more to stop Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach who now faces more than 50 criminal charges for allegedly molesting 10 boys over a 15-year period.
Paterno’s death came just 65 days after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was most known as the man who helped mold Penn State into one of the nation’s top football programs and led the Nittany Lions to 24 bowl victories.
Just one week before Sandusky was arrested for child abuse allegations, Paterno won his 409th career victory, surpassing Eddie Robinson as the winningest head coach in the history of Division I college football.
When the scandal first broke, Paterno tried to go out on his own terms by announcing his retirement at the end of the season. The Board of Trustees fired him instead.
To some, his legacy overshadows his involvement in one of the biggest scandals in the history of sports.
While my sympathy goes out to Paterno’s wife and children, I still see him as the man who arguably held more influence at Penn State during his 46-year reign as head coach than any other individual, but didn’t have the nerve to contact the police when he first received a report that Sandusky allegedly molested a young boy in the Penn State locker room showers in 2002.
Paterno fulfilled his legal obligation, not his moral obligation, by reporting the incident to his superiors. He has not been charged of any wrongdoing, but he and a handful of others who knew of the allegations were indirectly responsible for allowing Sandusky another decade to do as he wished.
And that he did. Sandusky retired unusually early from his football career in 1999 to spend more time working with Second Mile, a not-for-profit charity for vulnerable, underprivileged children that he started in 1977. He met all 10 alleged victims through Second Mile.
After the 2002 incident, Penn State reportedly banned Sandusky from bringing Second Mile boys into Penn State facilities, but he still had his own office and access to the facilities.
Two years later, it was in that same office where Victim 9 was allegedly raped by Sandusky — something that could have been avoided if someone had stepped forward earlier.
In Paterno’s final interview, with Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins, Paterno defended his failure to follow up, stating he “was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was.”
Paterno reportedly didn’t have a problem arguing the university’s policies about disciplining football players back in 2005 with former Penn State’s chief disciplinarian Vicky Triponey, according to a Huffington Post article.
Triponey said the coach would rather the university not inform the public when a football player had committed a serious violation and that it should not be of the university’s concern.
According to the article, at least 35 players faced internal discipline or criminal charges between 2003 and 2009 for offenses such as assault, drunk driving and marijuana possession.
Paterno’s football program is well known for its players graduating with grades well above average, but if Paterno was willing to keep his players’ misconduct hidden from the public eye, why should anyone assume he would have any moral obligation to turn Sandusky in?
Paterno was just one of many who had the power to put Sandusky behind bars. But he had the most.
For sports enthusiasts, Paterno died with his legacy intact, as greatest football coach of all time. For the mothers and fathers of the alleged victims, he will forever be remembered as the man who chose not to speak up when he had the chance.