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Joe Paterno/Associated Press photo by Gene J. Puskar

Judging JoePa

Sports | Legendary Penn State coach faces moral outrage, but residual support signals that sports is king

Issue: "Border bandits," Dec. 3, 2011

Allegations that former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted young boys and that university employees covered it up have met universal moral outrage. But reactions to head coach Joe Paterno's role in keeping the matter quiet are more mixed. Sports writers, commentators, and fans seem torn between condemning the beloved football icon for his silence and letting him off the hook on account of his life accomplishments. Paterno has worked as part of the Penn State coaching staff for 62 years, 46 of those as top man, winning two national championships and compiling a record 409 victories.

A detailed grand jury report contains devastating testimony from numerous witnesses indicting Sandusky of unspeakable atrocities, some committed on the campus of Penn State. The report outlines one 2002 instance in which graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary claims to have witnessed Sandusky in a Penn State facility shower raping a boy no more than 10 or 11 years old. McQueary reported the incident to Paterno, who in turn alerted athletic director Tim Curley. It is unclear how specific McQueary was in his reporting. Curley claims he was informed only of "inappropriate conduct" in the vein of "horsing around" and was given no indication of sexual conduct of any kind. Whatever the details witnessed or reported, McQueary, Paterno, and Curley failed to involve police.

Nevertheless, supportive crowds gathered outside the Paterno home in the aftermath of Sandusky's arrest, hollering words of encouragement and chanting, "We are Penn State!" And when school trustees elected to fire the 84-year-old coach the next day, several thousand students rallied to protest on the Penn State campus. But many observers found such shows of support deplorable. Here is a sampling of the wide range of reactions in judging JoePa:

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• Patrick McDonald of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN): "I am amazed and sickened, but not surprised, at the support for Paterno. People seem to care more about the fact that he coached a team for X years and scored Y number of wins. Who cares if a few boys had their lives ruined?"

• Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski: "I think one thing you have to understand is that Coach Paterno is 84 years old. I'm not saying that for an excuse. The cultures that he's been involved in, both football-wise and socially, there have been immense changes. And how social issues are handled in those generations are quite different, quite different."

• ACLJ senior counsel David French, at National Review Online: "It was cowardly for a college-football legend to do the absolute bare minimum required by law (if he even did that) in response to contemporaneous reports that a child had been abused in the coach's own facility. I'm sorry, Coach Paterno, but the call to your athletic director did nothing to defend the defenseless, and when you saw that nothing happened as a result of that call, it was your absolute moral obligation to take action."

• Former Penn State player and NFL great Franco Harris: "I feel that the board made a bad decision in letting Joe Paterno go. I'm very disappointed in their decision. I thought they showed no courage, not to back someone who really needed it at the time."

• Sportswriter John Feinstein: "Because Paterno was such an iconic figure, there will always be those who see him as some kind of victim in all this. But as the week went on there appeared to be more and more recognition of the fact that for some actions-or inactions-there are no excuses to be found, only apologies to be made."

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