By Jason Keidel
» More Columns
For decades, State College has been a 4.5 square-mile oasis inside a more rigorous reality, a pastoral nook near mining country and shuttered steel mills to the west. From Centre County to the Ohio border, Pennsylvania has produced an obscenely inordinate number of football stars, like so many cubes of coal dumped from a truck. No matter the hardships of the region, there was football in general, and Penn State football in particular.
Countless polls have called State College among the safest places in America – a designation now shattered by Jerry Sandusky and, to a lesser extent, his colleagues.
For sane people who don’t make forensics or pathology their profession, it’s impossible to quantify this, with this applying to him, he who has since surrendered status as human. There is no punishment commensurate to crimes like this, so we look elsewhere for sanity and accountability, since Jerry Sandusky has forfeited his right to speak. This is the rare time we eschew the caveat of allegedly. Presumption of innocence – innocence taking many hues, like the purity he ripped from those he raped – is the luxury of those less serial in their sickness.
Whenever scandal breaks, we regurgitate the Watergate bromide – what did he know and when did he know it? “He” is Joe Paterno, of course. Paterno is the autocrat of that autumnal, football fiefdom, where he was Sandusky’s boss for over two decades. By all accounts, Paterno’s rule over the area was so thorough that any malfeasance reached his desk in moments, much less what his defensive coordinator committed.
Paterno, who has been the face of the place for so long that he assumes an almost biblical aura, is the man everyone wants to speak on the matter. Heavy is the head…
No matter how Paterno answers, he will likely be stained by the stench of these crimes, if only by default, distance, or association with the criminal.
Adding to the incongruity of it all is that it happened on the iconic coach’s watch, in a place called Happy Valley, and to children of a charity. No matter how he answers, Paterno will no longer be the avuncular, cuddly “Joe Pa,” whose absurdly dark hair, bone-thick black glasses, and raspy sermons have become as much his signature as his deeds under October leaves. Considering his local prominence, he can’t hide behind press conferences cancelled by his superiors, when we know he has none. He must talk. He must talk soon.
There seems to be an endless chain of command that fumbled every time Sandusky served up yet another chance to chain him to a jail cell. And while no one has implicated Paterno in a legal sense, the court of public opinion is deliberating on derailing his legacy. At best, Paterno is a tragically loyal friend. At worst, well, you can decide.
Callers have suggested that this atrocity was spawned by reckless devotion to sports, a campus party gone anarchy, replete with willful ignorance from important people who should have known better. With all due respect, sports have nothing to do with this. Penn State just happens to be the backdrop to a sickening, but hardly original, narrative.
Successful Person A commits a crime and Persons B and C, who have benefited from Person A’s performance, toss a blanket on what they think is a campfire, not realizing the flames have spread across uncounted acreage and burned countless victims.
Of course, we’d like to think that most scandals are less savage. In the cases of Miami and Ohio State, for instance, the transgressions involved money and gifts circuitously directed to players, breeching the hard line of NCAA law, though nothing that warranted the Warren Commission.
But this, this is beyond a nightmare, a horror on eternal loop. We don’t understand this. I don’t understand this. I do know that there needs to be a Barry Goldwater approach to those involved, including a blast radius that eviscerates everyone who knew of these deeds and ducked. They must be fired, at least, assuming they’re not legally culpable.
Sandusky used his charity to channel his demented libido, and often used Penn State’s facilities to host these horrors. And too many people knew too much for this to slide for over a decade. The details are too grotesque to recount here. Not only did he destroy children, he focused on the children most easily destroyed.
It’s nice to have Kim Jones and other alums to provide special perspective (including my mother, who attended Penn State while, yes, Paterno was the coach) about the shattered ambiance, about the old-school state school that never changed its uniform, never glued names on their jerseys. But this goes beyond the bond of a college degree. This is an affront on life, not Nittany Lions.
There’s a natural gullibility (or optimism, if you prefer) in all of us. We assumed Penn State was clean because Joe Paterno said so. He’s been there so long, was so celebrated, that he became part of America’s football family, like a generational ornament we reflexively place on every Christmas tree. If something were wrong, then some person, some force, would simply correct it. Especially Joe Paterno.
Paterno’s son said the family is focused on Nebraska. No one else is. It’s vaguely unfair to Paterno’s family, and to Penn State’s players, who have been wrenched from college life. But there are children, whose names aren’t on jerseys, either, who would love to have that problem.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com