Joe Paterno developed a cult of personality during his decades-long reign as the head coach of Penn State's prestigious football program. He was admired by football and Penn State-loving Americans across the country. For athletes and fans at Penn State, Paterno wasn't just a coach; he was a rare bridge between academics and athletics, and he and his wife donated millions of dollars to various organizations and the school itself.
But it's sometimes too easy to turn a blind eye to the ones you love. Paterno turned a blind eye to illegal actions by his right-hand man, Jerry Sandusky, and in turn, Penn State — and football-loving America at large — almost let them get away with it.
HBO's 2018 film Paterno (starring Al Pacino) explores the slow unraveling that came with Paterno's silence toward injustice. In what is now known as the "Penn State child sex abuse scandal," assistant football coach Sandusky used his power and connections to a charity organization to gain access to minors whom he assaulted and abused for 15 years, sometimes in the locker rooms of Penn State. He was charged with more than 50 counts of sexual abuse and ultimately found guilty, though he has maintained his innocence.
Paterno allegedly knew about all of this, but took no action. Despite being tenured and nearing the end of a long and illustrious career, the 84-year-old was fired in disgrace only a year before his death from lung cancer. Once celebrated as one of the most successful coach in the history of college football, Paterno's fall from grace is a tragic reminder of what can happen when one stays silent about abuse.
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Paterno Was Notified Of Assault Involving Sandusky As Far Back As 1976
Paterno died from lung cancer in 2012, shortly after the hysteria of the case had culminated. Although Paterno denied knowledge of any prior events involving Sandusky until his death, civil settlements between victims and Penn State say otherwise.
Two victims said they reported their abuse directly to Paterno in the 1970s. One man claimed he had approached Paterno with an abuse allegation against Sandusky, to which Paterno replied, "I have a football season to worry about." Additionally, other assistant coaches in the 1980s voiced concerns about Sandusky to Paterno, but nothing was done.
Paterno Waited Two Days To Report The Incident And Had Conflicting Stories As To Why
When McQueary went to Paterno in 2001 to tell him of actions he witnessed in the Penn State locker rooms, it was on a weekend. Paterno was legally required to report the incident to his higher-ups, and he did. However, he waited two days to do so. When questioned about why he waited to make the report, Paterno had conflicting answers. He eventually told the grand jury that he had waited because, "I didn't want to interfere with [the staff's] weekends." However, he later told a Washington Post reporter that he'd waited "because [he] wanted to make sure [he] knew what [he] was doing."
To many, these conflicting answers raised more doubt regarding Paterno's knowledge about Sandusky and potential prior incidents. At the very least, it only added to the tarnish that was starting to wear down his reputation, and did nothing to defend him against arguments that he should have called the police immediately.
In 2012, Emails Surfaced Hinting That Paterno Knew More Than He'd Admitted
While under oath in 2011, prosecutors asked Paterno if he had ever heard of any other inappropriate behavior between Sandusky and young boys, other than the incident reported by McQueary. He replied:
I do not know of anything else that Jerry would be involved in of that nature, no. I do not know of it. You did mention — I think you said something about a rumor. It may have been discussed in my presence, something else about somebody.
This answer was vague, but in a following Washington Post interview, he stated that he had "no inkling" of any prior accusations.
However, when a 1998 email from Curley emerged detailing a sexual abuse incident involving Sandusky, there was a figure in the emails referenced as "Coach." Later, Curley testified that he'd discussed the alleged 1998 assault with Paterno. This, of course, insinuated that Paterno had lied while under oath.
The lie undermined much of the case that Paterno supporters had been making throughout the scandal: that the beloved figurehead had simply been fooled by Sandusky, just like everyone else. But if Paterno had in fact known about Sandusky's prior incidents, his lack of immediate action was much more troubling.
Paterno Did Fulfill His Legal Duty By Reporting The Sexual Assault Allegations
As a Pennsylvania State employee, under Title IX, Paterno had a legal duty to report any incidents of sexual assault he heard. The 2001 assault was clearly something that needed to be reported to his higher-up, which is exactly what Paterno did.
Paterno was a larger-than-life figure at Penn State; in many ways, as the case against Sandusky would prove, he wielded more power — at least in a rhetorical sense — than the school president. He had devoted his life to fostering and aiding the growth of students, and it showed. In the aftermath of the scandal, the public demanded to know how someone with Paterno's stature and power let this slide. State police commissioner Frank Noonan said:
Somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child... I think you have the moral responsibility, anyone. Not whether you’re a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call us.