Michael Bérubé — author, sometimes blogger, bright star of academia, and current MLA President — has written a remarkable essay about why he has resigned the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University.
That’s “Paterno” as in Joe Paterno, as in former boss of Jerry Sandusky, as in the child abuse sex scandal at Penn State, so you might think there’s nothing to explain. You’d be mistaken. Michael Bérubé has done a thing that doesn’t happen nearly often enough: he’s sorted out the actual story, evidence to date, and moral responsibilities of individuals and institutions.
In a perfect world, pile-ons wouldn’t happen. In a marginally less perfect world, every pile-on would be issued its own Michael Bérubé.
I don’t need to explain why I resigned the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University, do I? I mean, really. It was the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature. That’s all you need to know.Bérubé then discusses some of his interactions with the Paternos. I’m only leaving it out because it’s bad form to quote that much of an article.
Except that’s not all you need to know. And much of what you think you know is wrong.
Here’s what everyone knows: The Jerry Sandusky serial-child-rape scandal involved “an unprecedented failure of institutional integrity leading to a culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human decency.” Those were the words of the NCAA’s president, Mark Emmert, as he announced sweeping and severe sanctions against Penn State’s football program.
And there is no question about who is to blame: “In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university — Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley — repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse.” Those were the words of the Freeh report, commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees and submitted by former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. In his news conference on July 12, Freeh insisted that the iconic coach, Joe Paterno, “was an integral part of this active decision to conceal.”
I read the Freeh report the morning it was released and proceeded to ignore every news-media outlet’s request to comment. A producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered called my English-department office, my office at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, my cellphone, and my home phone. For good measure, she e-mailed and tweeted me. That afternoon, I saw a cloud formation that pretty clearly seemed to be a smoke signal — “Professor Bérubé, this is NPR. Please call us RIGHT THIS SECOND.” Radio, TV, newsmagazines, and newspapers called and wrote. But I had nothing to say that day, and I have had nothing to say since. Until now.
I knew the day the Freeh report was released that I would have to resign the Paterno chair, but I hesitated for almost six weeks. (I informed my dean on August 20.) I did so chiefly out of concern for the feelings of Sue Paterno, Joe’s wife. I have always been very fond of her, as has my wife, Janet, and my son Jamie — and she will always have my respect and gratitude. I thought also of Joe’s son Jay Paterno, a former quarterbacks coach at Penn State, whose wife, Kelley, was one of my students when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Virginia. …
More important, the Paterno family has done nothing wrong. Remember that the next time someone casts aspersions on the name “Paterno.” Yes, they are contesting the Freeh report, the NCAA sanctions, and the destruction of Joe Paterno’s legacy. From the outside, from where you sit, it doesn’t look good. But just imagine their shock and grief. Last year their father/husband was an idol, a symbol of integrity in the deeply corrupt and smarmy enterprise of big-time college sports, author of the “Grand Experiment” that sought to bring success with honor to dear old State. He was Saint Joe, a throwback to an era when football players actually took real classes and graduated along with the rest of their cohort. (Indeed, the graduation rate for Penn State’s African-American players has matched that of its white players; few football programs can say as much.) Suddenly he is associated with—and, by some accounts, the mastermind behind—the cover-up of the most horrible scandal in the history of American collegiate athletics.Bérubé digs into more details. At no point do I get the impression that he’s trying to exonerate Joe Paterno. Mostly, he’s sorting out the evidence and putting it in context. That’s a worthy thing, however ugly the story.
Who can say what form the Paternos’ grief should take? Grief is perhaps the least manageable of human emotions. And if the family members were grieving, as I knew they were, should I add insult to injury by telling them I could no longer hold the chair that bears their name?
Of course, that’s precisely what I had to do. So once I received word from the College of the Liberal Arts that my resignation of the chair was official, I wrote to Sue to tell her of my decision. I assure you it was not an easy letter to write.
Over the past year, many people have remarked that Penn State is living inside a bubble. In State College, in Centre County, perhaps in a 50-mile radius around Beaver Stadium, you can still see hundreds of tributes to JoePa — on T-shirts, on taxis — and, even more common, in expressions of anger and exasperation at the “National Communist Athletic Association” and “the Freeh Stooges.” It is striking.
Some visitors find such a reaction appalling — with good reason. Surprisingly few people here realize how bad it looks to contest the report our own trustees commissioned, flawed though it be; surprisingly few people here realize how it looks to wear T-shirts that construe Penn State as the victim in all this, as if they are willing to become complicit with the whole mess, active participants in the culture that produced this scandal. …
And yet we who live inside the bubble know a few things you don’t know. We know there is good reason to be puzzled at Freeh’s conclusion that Joe Paterno “closely” followed the 1998 police investigation into an allegation that Jerry Sandusky had engaged in inappropriate conduct with a boy in the showers at the university’s athletic facility. The Freeh report itself produces only two e-mails from Tim Curley, the athletics director who is now on leave, to support that argument. One indicates that Curley had “touched base” with Paterno, and the other asks for an update because “Coach is anxious to know where it stands.” The funny thing is, people didn’t usually refer to Paterno as “Coach”; they called him Joe. Of course, it’s possible that Curley was speaking in code precisely to protect Paterno; but it’s also possible that the second e-mail refers not to Paterno but to Coach Sandusky himself. We really don’t know.
But we do know that when it comes to the 1998 investigation, Freeh’s claim rests on a curiously thin reed. And though that doesn’t absolve Paterno for his inaction after Mike McQueary, a former graduate assistant, reported seeing Sandusky in the showers with a boy in 2001, it does hold out the possibility that he was not lying to the grand jury in 2011 when he said he didn’t recall the 1998 investigation. (By contrast, it does not seem plausible that Curley and Gary Schultz, now a former vice president of the university, would not have remembered the 1998 investigation, as they claimed in 2011. But we will have to wait for their day in court, scheduled for next year.)
And we know that while the body of the report contains crucial details about the real scandal of the 1998 investigation, no one has cared to focus on those details. They may not have been part of Freeh’s commission, but they raise important questions about why the investigation was shut down, and they warrant attention. They tell a sorry story about local law enforcement and child services — but they don’t tell the full story. Alycia Chambers, a psychologist who was contacted by the mother of one of the boys Sandusky was “grooming,” filed a report with Detective Ron Schreffler of the university police department and with the Pennsylvania child-abuse line, affirming that Sandusky fit the profile of a pedophile. Schreffler, in turn, reported to a caseworker at Centre County’s Office of Children and Youth Services, but the Freeh report does not indicate whether he passed along Chambers’s report.
The mind boggles at how much human misery, first and foremost that of Sandusky’s subsequent victims, could have been prevented if anyone had had the sense to listen to Chambers and act accordingly. According to Freeh, because the youth-services agency had conflicts over contracts with the Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded, the investigation was handed over to Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare, which engaged its own psychologist, who proceeded to tell everyone that there was no cause for alarm: Sandusky wasn’t grooming kids for abuse, and the psychologist had never heard of a 52-year-old man “becoming a pedophile.”
How did this debacle happen? Was someone in the know protecting Second Mile, which Sandusky used to recruit his victims? Did the second psychologist just tell the public-welfare folks what they wanted to hear? Did everyone involved sigh with relief when the district attorney closed the investigation?
We don’t know. What we do know is that everyone who had any knowledge of the 1998 investigation should have rung every available alarm, and gone to every appropriate authority, after McQueary reported what he saw in 2001. No one in the Penn State leadership did so, and that — not their responses three years earlier, when the district attorney sounded the all-clear — is what is unforgivable.
So there are two institutional failures here. The first, in 1998, is primarily a failure of our police and child-protection authorities. The second, in 2001, is primarily a failure of university governance. …
It may be too late to try to scale back the hysteria; it may not even be possible to call it by its proper name, “hysteria.” But those of us who live and work at Penn State, and who are most horrified and disgusted by these crimes, might yet be able to try to say that some of what has been said and written about Paterno has been unfair — even unhinged. And we might be able to say so while acknowledging that his failure to ensure Sandusky was stopped is more than enough to taint his legacy forever.Also from The Onion on this subject:
I have read a year’s worth of essays and blog posts and tweets and message boards now, and I have found that there are people out there who speak as if Joe Paterno had tried to find ways to help Jerry Sandusky rape children for decades. It is no wonder that 28 percent of the American public believes that Paterno himself was a child rapist, and an additional 15 percent are not sure. As usual, The Onion said it best: “Additional Findings Show Every Penn State Student, Alumnus Also Knew About Ongoing Child Molestation.” That is how some of the media coverage has gone.
The Onion had a field day with that story. So did a lot of other publications that weren’t nearly as funny.12 August 2011, Penn State Players All Worried They’re Going To Be The One Who Accidentally Kills Joe Paterno
July 12 2012, Freeh Report: Joe Paterno Burning In Hell Right Now
July 21 2012, Details Of Paterno Family’s Internal Report
July 23 2012, Penn State To Also Remove Statue Of Showering Sandusky
July 29 2012, Texas A&M Fans Celebrate 1999 Alamo Bowl Victory Over Penn State
July 31 2012, Penn State Students Trying To Understand Why They’re There Now
August 27 2012, Penn State Bans The Who’s ‘Fiddle About’ During Games
October 11 2011, They Can Never Take Away My Memories by “Jerry Sandusky”
I have read countless denunciations of the man’s desire to coach into his 80s, written by people who are convinced that Paterno covered up Sandusky’s crimes simply because he wanted the record for most career wins-and who are apparently unaware that Paterno feared that when he stopped coaching he would die. (You know what? He was right.) I have read longtime Paterno haters jump on the man’s corpse because he continued to play Rashard Casey at quarterback at the start of the 2000 season, after Casey had been charged with aggravated assault by the Hoboken, N.J., police, despite the fact that Casey said he was innocent. (The grand jury refused to indict him, and the city of Hoboken eventually settled Casey’s lawsuit for malicious prosecution.) Paterno’s support of Casey was actually laudable, at least for people who believe in the presumption of innocence.Cheap moral glow: never edifying. One of these days I must write about pile-ons and how they work. They’re an evil phenomenon.
I have read sportswriters sputtering with indignation all over again about how arrogant and deluded Paterno was to believe that Penn State, and not Texas, should have been national champions in 1969, because everybody knows that Texas was a stronger team. (As the sportswriter Allen Barra recently pointed out in a sneering review of Joe Posnanski’s biography of Paterno, Penn State’s opponents that year were very weak, going 49-44; as Barra inexplicably failed to point out, Texas’ opponents were 39-61. You could look it up.) I have read right-minded citizens complaining loudly about Paterno’s exorbitant salary, ignorant of the fact that it was a fraction of those of his peers for almost his entire career. Our local paper’s former sports editor actually came out of retirement to chortle that he always knew Paterno would come to a bad end, and recounted the outrage he felt in 1985 when Paterno didn’t tell him the full story of some kid’s injury. (I am not making this up.) I know it is hard to think that “Paterno is innocent of X and Y even though he is at fault for Z,” when Z involves something so hideous and overwhelming. But the schadenfreude and the piling on have been remarkable.
And I have watched in amazement as Vicky Triponey, a former vice president for student affairs who became infamous in some circles at Penn State for eliminating the right of students to have a say in what groups are recognized on campus, remade herself as “the Woman Who Stood Up to Paterno” (to cite a CNN.com headline from July 2012). If you never heard of Triponey until she began to take her sweet revenge on Paterno, you don’t know how surreal it is for many of us to see the woman who tried to cut funds from the student radio station — for its criticisms of the university administration, some students charged — being touted as the brave whistle-blower who lost her job for crossing the football coach.As Patrick remarked yesterday, when one of these trains gets moving, all kinds of cars will opportunistically latch on. It’s another thing that happens in pile-ons.