Penn State Can Embrace the Past and Move Forward with Pride

Accepting blame for Sandusky will go a long way

Penn State got a break, a big break, and now they can be a pillar, a beacon, a powerhouse going forward. In 2011, the country dropped its jaw in shock when the Jerry Sandusky child abuse allegations came out. As victim after victim came forward, it became apparent that Joe Paterno, Saint Joe, the patron saint of Pennsylvania State University football had harbored a criminal and harbored one for years. I’m sure Paterno heard whispers that Sandusky may have been involved in moral wrongdoing, but often, whispers are not followed up upon. It reminds me of the “gay whispers;” you know, people talk about somebody being gay, but nobody follows through and actually finds out. Paterno may have been shielded by those who thought Sandusky’s penchant for hanging around young boys was just Jerry and his inner child, but Paterno needed to be out front on this, and sadly, he wasn’t.

As a fan of college football and fan of Penn State, perhaps the last eastern power, like many I was aghast. How could this happen? Who is Jerry Sandusky and more importantly, how was he able to survive for 31 years doing what he was doing to young boys? Sandusky has to take the heat here; he was the perpetrator, the pedophile, the criminal. He formed The Second Mile as a front to find vulnerable boys from shaky backgrounds for his own pleasure and exploitation. That may be tough to read, but it’s an absolute.

Joe Paterno went from lovable two time national champion football coach to a shell of his self in the end. It is hard for many to accept that Paterno has blood on his hands. This is a man who did so much for the university and to think he looked the other way while Sandusky did those despicable things is hard for some to take. To many, this was a man who did so many good things, that it seems unfair that his entire reputation can be ruined by the one bad thing that he did. But, this isn’t Richard Nixon’s henchman stealing documents or Bill Clinton having consensual “relations” with an intern in the White House. No, this is far worse because it leaves an enormous scar on the victims, a scar that will last a lifetime.

The Lions were preparing for the 1999 Alamo Bowl when the university announced that Sandusky, after 31 years on the sideline was retiring. That move surprised many because Sandusky was often mentioned as Paterno’s eventual successor. Why would the younger Sandusky, the master mind of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl defense that intercepted the mighty Vinny Testaverde five times, step away now? After the Lions won the Alamo Bowl, Sandusky was carried off the field, a ride he certainly enjoyed.

Something smelled fishy right away. It didn’t make sense because those around the university knew that Sandusky had an interest in being the successor to Paterno, but as we know, Paterno had no plans to retire, in fact, he had to be fired in the wake of the allegations that broke in 2011. The likely scenario was that there were suspicions of Sandusky’s behaviors and he was called in and there it was suggested that he retire. There were no accusations, but the message was clear: you’re never getting the head coaching job and it may be best that you walk away while still revered. Sandusky did just that and as a state employee was able to receive a nice pension and an office at the university.

It was two years after Sandusky retired that the incident occurred, the shower scene where coach and former quarterback Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky having sex with a young boy in the locker room shower. We all know what happened after; McQueary reported what he saw to Paterno who then met with his superiors and the cover up began. Of course, that was 2001, years after the abuse began and years before it would come to the surface. Paterno was told of a horrific crime and for ten years kept on coaching and kept on winning games. The question will always be a simple one: how could this have happened and how could Paterno, knowing what he knew, just keep on living and working and coaching. Moreover, he saw Sandusky enough but never had the courage to confront him about these rumors. One can only hope that Sandusky was confronted, and at the very least, denied that he did anything wrong. That doesn’t excuse Paterno, but better to ask and be lied to than to never ask at all.

Paterno is revered by many in Pennsylvania. There are those that can’t come to grips that he knew what happened because they believe he would have done something. These people/supporters are in denial because they can’t believe that he had full knowledge, because Joe Paterno, Saint Joe had too much integrity to let a monster like Sandusky do what he did.

The other side is one of vitriol. These people blame Paterno for everything; they believe that he did nothing, he protected his football career over young children and they even believe that he got what was coming when he was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after losing his job as the football coach. This camp thinks taking away 111 wins was just even though it can never make up for what he didn’t do.

The pro-Paterno camp thinks that Paterno did far too much good and believe that when he told his superiors he did what was required of him. They think taking away 111 wins was unfair and unjust and the sanctions placed on the university were far too harsh. They state that the football program was punished because of what occurred after Sandusky retired. The old “why are you punishing the players on the team when they were in grade school when this all happened,” defense.

It is tough, emotional, and heart wrenching. It’s easy to live in New York, Ohio, Illinois, or California and have a strong opinion. It’s easy to say “make Penn State drop football forever,” when you live hundreds or thousands miles away. It’s a non-emotional response. Yes, just thinking of what Sandusky did sickens you enough to want to shut down the university, but what about the Penn State fan? What about the people that grew up in Pennsylvania and watched the Nittany Lions their whole life? The 1982 team that beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to win the National Championship, the aforementioned 1986 team that stopped Miami in the Fiesta Bowl; the undefeated 1969 team that didn’t get voted champions because Richard Nixon gave the honor to Texas after they won at then undefeated Arkansas?

As silly as this may sound, sports provides many things to many people. We become attached to sports, the players, the leaders. To say that many live and die with a sports team is hyperbole, but there is no denying that a fan feels better the day after a big win than they do after a big loss. If you have passion for Penn State football, the scandal hit you hard. It’s like having a brother that goes to prison for murder. The public sees a murderer, you see a brother who walked home from school with you, played ball with you, helped you when you needed help. The rest of society says lock him up and throw away the key, and even though you know it’s the right thing, it’s painful.

When Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death for bombing the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, I remember the pain that his father, Bill McVeigh went through. Bill knew that Tim had to face the music, but that was his son, his little boy that he tried to raise the best he could. It’s easy to stand miles away, without emotions, and call for brutal and harsh, but when you’re attached to something, it is gut wrenching. Penn State football bonded family, was passed down from generation to generation and was a major reason why students applied to Penn State.

Penn State suffered, but the victims suffered more. Penn State suffered when the NCAA placed the school on four years’ probation, took away scholarships and vacated 111 wins by Paterno. Once again, the victims suffered more. But, in the end, the sanctions are devoid of feelings. Does taking away the wins really help the victims heal? Many of the victims were fans of Penn State football and that’s why Sandusky was able to get to them. Does banning Penn State from the Liberty Bowl really do justice?

Part of history is telling the story—the whole story—and now that the NCAA has given Paterno back his win total to 409, the whole story can be told. Fifty years from now, Paterno’s story can be told fully; the 409 wins, the two titles, along with his cover up in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. To not have these wins doesn’t do anybody any good. If Paterno paid players, changed grades and accumulated wins, this would not be as big a deal, but because he allowed, or at the very least, covered for a man who was raping young children it is far worse. Like the sibling of a Tim McVeigh, the Penn State fan might feel a little dirty; guilty by association. That’s unfair. The fans did nothing wrong. They simply rooted for their Nittany Lions to win football games and for their coach to keep doing good things for the university. The best word to describe it is uneasy.

Numbers are just numbers, but now is the time for Penn State to shine. Please, don’t gloat, rejoice and celebrate because you can now go to bowl games, and that you have the all-time winningest coach back in your stead. This is the time to so the right thing. This is the time to advertise and advocate for the victims of child sexual abuse. The NCAA is making you spend $60 million in Pennsylvania on the behalf of sexual abuse victims. The easy thing for the university to do is to spend it quietly and in a few months or a year, report that they have paid restitution. That is the coward’s way. The best way to shine is acknowledge the past and accept that you did the wrong thing. It was hard for Germany to admit that the Holocaust was wrong; it was embarrassing for Germans to acknowledge that they supported Hitler, but eventually, they were able to purge themselves by acknowledging their past.

Penn State should sponsor advertising and campaigns and openly admit that they were at fault for the handling of Jerry Sandusky. A commercial that says something to the likes of “We at Penn State allowed a sexual predator to do awful things to young people on our campus and we’re here to tell you……” This will take courage but no more courage than Sandusky’s victims have taken. Taking the blame will once again bring attention that some want to forget, but it needs to happen. The German born in 1950 had nothing to do with the Holocaust, but accepting and in some way embracing the past is required and at Penn State, they need to require that everybody acknowledges what happened in the past.

Penn State is getting its life back. The 409 wins, the restoring of scholarships and the chance to play in bowl games again is a return to normalcy. It is the hope that Sandusky’s victims are getting their lives back, too. These victims have to live with what happened to them but that doesn’t mean that they can’t live well. Penn State has to live with what happened, but if they embrace (yes, that doesn’t sound right) the past, they can enjoy the future. If they embrace and acknowledge what happened and get out in front of it, if they ever win another national championship, America will forgive them because they did the right thing. If they release a couple statements, silently donate money and then win a national championship, they will be reviled.

It is my expectation that The Pennsylvania State University will do the right thing. They will acknowledge that what they permitted was horrific and can never happen again. They will take the blame, acknowledge the past and in the same 60 second spot will state that they are moving forward with pride. It’s not going to be easy, but they can do it and what’s more is that they will do it.

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One Response to “Penn State Can Embrace the Past and Move Forward with Pride”

  1. Jill Says:

    Very interesting…I don’t believe the kids who won those games should be punished and you are right, you can’t erase the past. I just hope you are right when you say the whole story will be told. When kids are taught about Joe Paterno in 50 years I do hope he isn’t sainted again. I hope they learn that he was a beyond phenomenonal college football coach, but that there is indeed blood on his hands. He didn’t abuse kids, thank God, but he had the power to stop what happened after he heard about it and he looked the other way. He let it happen. I was always taught history was important and that if you didn’t teach it it was bound to repeat itself – I hope this is fully taught and doesn’t repeat itself. And I fully agree with you about what Penn State should do next and how they should spend the money – let’s hope they do the right thing this time.

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