By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
One of the most enduring questions of the child rape scandal at Penn State is what role did head football coach Joe Paterno play in the decision to grant his ex-right-hand man, Jerry Sandusky, carte blanche to prey on children. In a statement immediately after the scandal broke last November, Joe Paterno claimed that he reported what little he knew, did what he could, and that he wasn’t fully aware of the gruesome particulars:
“As my grand jury testimony stated, I was informed in 2002 by an assistant coach that he had witnessed an incident in the shower of our locker room facility,” Paterno’s statement read. “It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw, but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the Grand Jury report. Regardless, it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky. As Coach Sandusky was retired from our coaching staff at that time, I referred the matter to university administrators.”
And that’s where he left it — with the intended impression that a good (but not fully informed) man did what the university’s protocol dictated and hesitated to do more because he didn’t want to jeopardize the process. Law enforcement was quick to say that Coach Joe was not being charged for failure to report the crime and this seemingly official exoneration gave PSU fans reason to breath after the heinous allegations caused them to hold their breath. St. Joe may not be the smartest 80-year-old coach around but he was clean!
In an article in the Washington Post, Paterno again demurred saying, “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was, so I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
For good measure, Paterno even gave us the doddering, old coach routine telling us that … dadgummit …:
“… I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”
Me get involved to protect my program? Nope, just following the protocol. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. He’s just doodling “X”s and “O”s. Nothing to see, here.
JoPa’s family was quick to his side saying the old coach was a character guy with little familiarity in the ways of the modern world — like emails which he never used — nor of sexual perversions that never plague the pristine sidelines that are his kingdom. Joe was everything good about college football — integrity, victory with honor, and players graduating on-time. Old players came from every direction to talk about the man and the smear campaign against his ideals and of those who would topple his station as America’s college coach for their own undisclosed but obviously jealous purposes.
ESPN football analyst and former NFL player and executive,Matt Millen, spoke for the Penn State alums:
Penn State’s program has always been above everything else, largely because that is what Joe espoused and lived. Was he perfect? No. Corrected them and owned up to them. That is what set him apart.
All of that might have sold gladly to the Nittany Lion faithful had not a damning series of emails recently come to light uncovered by former FBI chief, Louie Freeh’s ex-G-men, whom the university hired to investigate the tragedy. Seems Vice-President Gary Shultz, whose responsibilities included overseeing the university police, kept a secret file with emails about the dilemma of “What to do about Jerry?” after the grad student’s report of child rape in the Penn State locker rooms. As discussed in my previous post, university administrators were in unanimous agreement to turn Sandusky over to authorities until AD Tim Curley ( A Paterno protege’ and former Penn State QB) had a heart-to-heart with old, feeble, above-the-fray, Joe. Miraculously, the plan changed from following the law to following your heart and giving Sandusky a chance to reform. It’s all about redemption and “humanizing the university” as former PSU President Graham Spanier might say. Though, even “Erasmus” Spanier was enough of a realist to recognize the danger of the plot. “The only downside for us is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we become vulnerable for not having reported it,” he softly protested.
But an article today in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that JoPa could wield an rusty, iron fist when he needed to, and could use emails when it suited him. The emails, leaked by someone investigating the fiasco, show that Paterno considered himself the final arbiter of justice when it came to the Penn State football program. Paterno deftly used an associate’s email account to establish the boundaries of his power with PSU officials with just enough ambiguity to make his supervisors blink.
The story begins in 2007 when as many as two dozen PSU football players launched a melee against other students in the off-campus Meridan Apartment complex resulting in six players facing nine felonies and 18 lesser charges for battery and assault. Penn State’s Office of Judicial Affairs (OJA), who investigated the fight, called it “brutal in nature. ” The brawl was about retribution. “We went there for revenge,” one player said. “We had a reputation to uphold,” another player said, according to the documents at the OJA. (Obviously, these two missed the Matt Millen lecture).
Paterno wanted it gone and renewed his demand that PSU’s rule penalizing students for off-campus transgressions be repealed. It wasn’t. However, even as President Spanier was perplexed about what to do, Coach Paterno had a clear vision about the crisis. In an April 7, 2007, email sent via his assistant, Sandi Segursky’s account, to the Prez, Paterno decreed:
“I want to make sure everyone understands that the discipline of the players involved will be handled by me as soon as I am comfortable that I know all the facts.” It was signed “Joe.”
Spanier dutifully sent a copy of the email to Vicky Triponey, then vice president of student affairs, whose department was investigating the alleged attack by players and who had weathered Paterno’s demand two years earlier to drop the off-campus conduct rule. Triponey, who has now come out publicly about the undue influence Paterno wielded in Happy Valley, was stunned.
Triponey wrote back to the president, saying, “Thanks for sharing. I assume he is talking about discipline relative to TEAM rules (note: he does not say that). Obviously discipline relative to the law is up to the police and the courts, and discipline relative to violations of the student code of conduct is the responsibility of Judicial Affairs.”
“This has not always been clear with Coach Paterno so we might want to clarify that and encourage him to work with us to find the truth and handle this collaboratively with the police and the university,” she went on. “The challenge here is that the letter suggests that football should handle this and now Coach Paterno is also saying THEY will handle this and makes it look like the normal channels will be ignored for football players.”
“Can you remind them of police and University responsibility?”
Ouch? Old doddering, unsophisticated in the ways of the world, Joe, not knowing where his authority stopped and the police’s begins. The same guy who follows university protocol and then puts his head down and goes back to work molding young minds, fully confident that a crisis that threatens everything he’s worked for for fifty years will all be handled without him? That, Joe? THAT Joe! Say it ain’t so, Joe!
So what happened to the alleged miscreant players? Well, the county criminal blotter reports that the courts dismissed all counts against four players and allowed the remaining two to plead guilty to misdemeanor offenses. Some received short suspensions from the team. Paterno refused to let players attend the university’s disciplinary hearing as witnesses, threatening in a perfectly modern blast text message to throw them off the team if they attended. Instead, he made the affected players perform 10 whole hours of community service. He also forced the entire team had to spend two hours on Saturday afternoons cleaning the stadium after home games.
Thereafter, some commentators hailed Joe as a hero — and Vicky Triponey was fired.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Correction: The previous version of this blog post listed the secret file containing lost emails as being possessed by AD Tim Curley. Actually, it was Gary Shultz, university VP, who maintained the file and turned it over to Louis Freeh as part of the university investigation into the matter.
UPDATE: ESPN reports the Freeh Report on Penn State will be released next week and that it “will be tough on Joe.” The Penn State Board meets Thursday. Read ESPN here.