Sick with a cold a few days ago, laying on my couch, I decided to listen to something mindless in hopes of relaxing, maybe falling asleep and hopefully waking up with my cold miraculously gone. I chose a podcast on Grantland, in which the Bill Simmons led website’s baseball stats nerd Jonah Keri talked to Joe Posnanski, maybe the most well-regarded sportswriter working in America today.
Since Keri is a baseball specialist and Pos came through the ranks writing about baseball, I knew there’d be talk of the World Series, and as a Cardinals fan, that’s not something I’m going to get sick of for a long time. Posnanski is one of the few baseball writers who can still manage to wring some magic out of many of the genre’s well-worn cliches—he’s got the ability to break hearts with the homespun, genial, heartfelt emotion of the best old-school writers, but instead of using that as a crutch, he only breaks it out when necessary, and has the statistical smarts of many of the new-school baseball analysts that the old writers refer to as Mother’s Basement Geeks.
They did end up talking about the World Series, but most of what they ended up talking about, at least for the first half of the cast or so before I started drifting in and out of a NyQuil haze, was Joe Paterno. See, Pos, maybe America’s best working sportswriter in appeal across generational lines, has temporarily relocated to State College, PA to write a book about the town’s and college’s patron saint, six-decade football coach Joe Paterno. Posnanski and Keri talked about Paterno’s reputation in the town not just as a football coach, but as the true figurehead for the school, and about Paterno’s passion for helping young people. Pos recounted an anecdote about someone asking Paterno a question about what the best team he’d ever coached was, and he said he’d have to wait and see, as in see how the young men he coached turned out: how many doctors, lawyers, engineers got to those careers because of the scholarships they received to play Penn State football.
This podcast was aired on November 4. Then, on November 5, this came out.
For those who’ve followed the news, I won’t repeat too much here, but basically what has come out is this: Jerry Sandusky, who served as a coach at Penn State under Joe Paterno for thirty years, has been accused of sexually abusing eight children, and at least one of those incidents occurred in 2002 at Penn State’s football facility, in the shower, where it was witnessed by a then graduate assistant now believed to be current wide receivers coach Mike McQueary.
The assistant went, conflicted, to Head Coach Joe Paterno to report the incident. It is not known exactly what the assistant told Paterno had happened, but Paterno reported the incident up the ladder. Since Sandusky was retired at the time of the incident (but still had an office in the football facilities), the matter was in the hands of the university itself, and not the football program.
Now, as the grand jury filings come out, no one looks innocent. The evidence against Sandusky is overwhelming, as it is against Athletic Director Tim Curley and VP for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, the two Penn State officials to be charged with perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse. A breakdown of the case so far is here, and it is damning.
The one name missing in all of these charges is Joe Paterno, who, in having passed the knowledge of suspected abuse up the chain in 2002, is seemingly absolved of all responsibility here, at least in legal terms. He did his due diligence, at least in terms of legal responsibility, as far as it’s concerned up to this point; unless further evidence comes into play, Joe Paterno is not criminally negligent like his counterparts in the AD’s and VP’s offices.
It was a chance irony that led to the recording of that podcast lauding Paterno and his relationship with State College, PA, right before the news of all of this wrongdoing broke. But whether Joe Paterno is indeed criminally negligent or not, he is now, very obviously, morally negligent. In passing the buck up the chain, he absolved himself of any responsibility in having to actually deal with the situation himself, and as the most powerful man in that small college town, he could very easily have righted these wrongs and been the hero for it, simply by contacting the police, which no one ever did. His inaction is not the greatest sin in this story, not by a long shot, but for a man who, in the past, has been known to do so much for young men, his downfall should be the time he chose to do nothing.
Posnanski himself wrote much more eloquently about this than I have, after the news broke, and undoubtedly his opinion, and the trajectory of the book he moved to State College to write, has been changed. Pos, who says in his piece, “I’m writing a book about Joe Paterno. I need time. This story, for me at least, needs time.” But I would challenge him not to take that time. He says he’s not going to write about it further; not yet. Maybe Paterno wasn’t going to act on it further when he found out what had gone on in the shower that night. Not yet. “Yet” never happened for Paterno, and his legacy will change forever because of it.