In 17 years of covering sports, only one topic has kept this writer awake and writhing long past bedtime.
The term, the school, covers the controversy, the tragedy, the horror.
And it wasn’t the actions of Jerry Sandusky that kept yours truly staring at the glacial movements of the alarm clock.
We understand, on some level that there are monsters who do monstrous things. He is a demented man who clearly cannot distinguish between right and wrong, between the real and surreal. He belongs in a prison, or a coffin, or whatever stone cell our laws allow.
What had me, and perhaps millions more, wincing front of every report of his atrocities, was the rest. The legions who could only capture the Captain Obvious reality that Sandusky was evil.
But they told us to stop there. There was no apparatus that protected Sandusky, a cultural bubble that saved him from the meat-hook realities of his actions, that chopped off the long arm of the law.
There was no Joe Paterno. Certainly not as we’ve come to understand him. They may have given a grudging concession that Paterno possibly knew about Sandusky toward the end of the line. But they wouldn’t concede that Paterno knew in 2002, or 1998, or, as recent court documents revealed, knew as far back as 1976.
All the tweets and emails and calls to CBS calling for my job for having the gall to suggest that Paterno was partly responsible for the serial sexual assault of children. All the profane missives questioning my intelligence, ancestry, and sexual orientation. Let’s just say it was more than a lone, misguided voice. It was a vulgar, deafening chorus.
How dare any of us call out Paterno for refusing to use the singular power he worked so hard and long to attain. How dare we suggest that Joe Paterno, the most powerful person in State College, if not the state of Pennsylvania, had the authority and obligation to jam the eject button on his top lieutenant, end his sickening crime spree, and send him to whatever penal dungeon would have him.
We learned about the Paterno Apologist, a vocal army that saw the world through the warped prism of football justice. As long as he wins, he stays. Paterno was little more than Mr. Magoo, a facile football coach, purely an old man whose monolithic focus and epic football record precluded him from seeing the sickness a few doors down the hall.
I would love to tell you that there were only a few deviants, a few rogue alums who can’t see the truth through the decades since they graduated from the school.
No, there were many, too many, to count. Scores of people with jaded sensibilities, suspended in 1986, when their hero shocked the world in the Fiesta Bowl, upsetting the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes. Forget the rest. We are Penn State!
And now we hear that Penn State is honoring Paterno on September 17. Honoring a man who enabled Sandusky, whose visage has been removed from campus, whose record was wiped off the coaching map, who was exposed by a 300-page report from a former FBI director.
Tone deaf doesn’t cover it.
Doubling down on the outrage, the school has no comment on the matter. Just let them have this twisted moment of provincial pride. Let them have one more “Joe Pa” moment.
How dare they. How dare they insult not only the public, but also all those children who were never allowed to be children, who have their mail forwarded to therapists and group homes, whose cases are still being adjudicated in court, who are adults in size only, whose growth ended that first time Sandusky led them into that haunted shower.
Maybe there’s time to reverse this dementia. Maybe, with enough blowback and outrage, the school can come to its senses, and realize they can’t possibly honor a man, who, at best, obliquely kept a monster alive and prospering in his monstrosities.
Joe Paterno may not be the perpetrator. But he surely was an accomplice. Imagine how many lives would have been saved or restored had Paterno simply dimed-out his defensive coordinator. And no, notifying an athletic director, who had a fraction of Paterno’s traction, was not close to enough.
Our obsession with sports is partly responsible for people like Paterno. Winning was a virtue that eclipses all vice. We figured men with too much power simply allowed that envelope bulging with cash to reach that recruit, allowed the mom or dad of a prized player a few extra benefits. A payoff here, a car there.
We had no idea it led to someone like Sandusky. We can’t change what he did. Nor can we change what Paterno did. But we can at least prevent another Paterno, and we can surely cancel any festive recognition of the man.
There are still a few coaches who lord over a campus, from Mike Kryzewski to Nick Saban, whose reach extends well beyond the arena. But there is no more coach-as-god, whose stone fist spreads across an entire state, and state of mind. There isn’t another Joe Paterno.
Thank heaven for that.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.