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Penn State Was Right to Fire Joe Paterno

The wins will survive, obviously. Six undefeated seasons, two national championships, three Big Ten titles, etc. His philanthropy will survive. They're not going to take his name off the library. His sheer longevity at Penn State — 46 years as a head coach, 62 years altogether — will be in there, even if the Queen of England phase he's occupied over the past few years is dispatched in a line or two. Of the many books I read growing up by and about college coaches, Paterno was the only one I really admired, precisely because of his basic humanity above and beyond winning football games. He's progressive, funny and still wins football games. The debt that college sports owes to the man and the deep respect it has for him will survive in hallowed, Wooden-esque tones, and it will all be true.

Now, though, Paterno's role in covering up heinous allegations against one of his longest-tenured, most trusted assistants will be equally true. And which part of the story comes first, which one is The Truth, and which is the caveat, the footnote, I don't know. This is not Woody Hayes punching Charlie Bauman in a bout of frustrated senility. This is serious criminal behavior in Paterno's program, in Paterno's locker room, left essentially unchecked for years after he was informed.

Matt Hinton (November 7, 2011)
Outside Paterno's house, it was a scene out of the Last Days of Richard Nixon . . .

Matt Hinton (November 9, 2011)

Matt Hinton is perhaps the blogosphere’s most perceptive college football writer, and has been for years, so it is not surprising that Dr. Saturday was the one who sounded both of the right notes in the sad case of Joe Paterno’s final days as the head coach of the Penn St. Nittany Lions. Woody Hayes and Richard Nixon are, in fact, the proper parallels: the former, due to the differences; the latter, due to the similarities. We begin with the latter, because that comparison is the one that answers Hinton’s question about "which one is The Truth, and which is the caveat."

In the third and final volume of his biography of Richard Nixon, Stephen E. Ambrose wrote:

He is the only President who resigned his office, the only one forced to accept a pardon for his deeds. This will never be forgotten. Two hundred years from now, when he will get only a paragraph or two in a high school American history text, the first sentence will begin: "Richard Nixon, thirty-seventh President, resigned his office because of the Watergate scandal."

The passage will go on to note his opening to China, his pioneering efforts at establishing détente, and his role in ending the American involvement in Vietnam. Depending on what happens in the first generation of the twenty-first century, he could be seen as a pivotal figure in world politics of the post-World War II era, the man who prepared the way for the ending of the nuclear arms race and of the Cold War. It might go the other way and fault him for a failure to seize the opportunity and use American power in 1973 to impose an enforceable peace on Israel and the Arabs. It all depends on how things turn out, and the judgment on Nixon will shift with every major upheaval in world politics.

What will not shift is that spot that will not out, the Watergate cover-up, resignation, and pardon.

The Jerry Sandusky scandal is the spot that will not out, and should not. Mike McQueary says he saw a grown man sexually assaulting a ten-year-old boy. He relayed this information to Joe Paterno, who did not call the police. He pushed the problem one rung up the ladder by reporting it to his superiors, but, otherwise, he did nothing. There’s no neat capsule into which you can fit those facts.

Paterno is a committed, practicing Roman Catholic, and, by all accounts, a decent human being. I believe him when he says he’s torn up about this, but I imagine he must have been torn up about the similar scandal a few years ago regarding Roman Catholic priests. There, too, there was an initial outrage (the molestation of children by adult authority figures) compounded by a subsequent outrage (addressing it internally and secretly, in a manner that allowed it to continue). Having seen the effects of that approach, and the ensuing scandal, upon one institution to which he was wholly devoted, how could he not take a different approach when confronted with the same situation at another institution to which he was wholly devoted?

Joe Paterno knew better. Joe Paterno brought Jerry Sandusky to Penn State, and let him stay there. Joe Paterno had (probably) the power and (certainly) the influence to decide whether Sandusky stayed or went. Joe Paterno didn’t hear a report from further down on the organizational chart, the way his superiors did; Joe Paterno heard an eyewitness account from the guy who was there. Joe Paterno had none of the fear of reprisal that McQueary may have felt.

As weak as McQueary’s excuses for inaction are, Paterno didn’t even have those excuses. Paterno didn’t make this happen, but, when he found out it was happening, he let it keep happening for nearly a decade. That is why this is Joe Paterno’s Watergate; this ending taints everything good that went before. Just as Nixon’s whole career now serves solely as a footnote to the scandal that caused his resignation, so, too, is everything Joe Paterno did in State College now a mere afterthought to the appalling moral and legal wrongdoing he permitted to continue.

This brings us to the Woody Hayes comparison. Paterno did a lot for Penn State, but Hayes did a lot for Ohio State, too, yet, when Hayes hit Charlie Bauman, his career ended immediately; within days, he had cleaned out his desk. What Hayes did was egregious, but that assault was committed in the heat of the moment against a single legal adult. What Paterno did was to overlook an assault against a child, and to permit additional assaults to occur against additional children, and to do so with clear-headed calculation.

That is why the Pennsylvania State University trustees were right to conclude that Joe Paterno should not be allowed to retire, nor allowed to finish out the season. It took courage for the trustees to take the stand they did, and to say: "Joe Paterno is no longer the football coach, effective immediately."

Last Sunday, November 6, marked the 142nd anniversary of the first college football game, as a result of which last Saturday was commemorated as national college football day. Joe Paterno was a large part of that long history, but, given the deplorable conduct he permitted to continue for nearly the last decade of his storied career, he deserved to be fired, and Penn State deserves credit for ending his tenure as abruptly and unequivocally as his actions---or, more to the point, his inaction---deserved.

The first Saturday following the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of the sport will be a sad one for college football, but it would have been sadder still if Joe Paterno had been allowed to be in the stadium this weekend as the head coach of the Nittany Lions. The trustees did the right thing. Unfortunately, it has been almost ten years too long since anyone could say that about the manner in which anyone in authority at Penn State handled anything relating to the appalling acts toward which they turned a blind eye.