The End Of Joe Pa

Marc Sterne Producer, "The Tony Kornheiser Show"
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It’s a hard thing to see one’s idol falling from grace. In 1921, after indictments were handed out to the players involved in the Black Sox Scandal, the Chicago Daily News ran the headline “Say it Ain’t So, Joe,” in reference to Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Jackson, along with 8 other players was eventually banned from baseball for life for their role in throwing the 1919 World Series. Jackson has the third highest lifetime batting average at .356, but is not in the Hall of Fame – and it’s doubtful he ever will be enshrined in Cooperstown. People were heartbroken when they found out that a player that great cheated.

It’s understandable – we want to think of our idols as being perfect – better than us and better than all the rest. Not just on the field, but in life as well, and when we find out that they are flawed just like the rest of us (sometimes even more than we are), we don’t want to believe it.

The phrase “Say it ain’t so Joe” may as well belong to the Penn State faithful, ever since the first allegations involving Jerry Sandusky began to surface. Nobody wanted to think for a second that Joe Paterno knew anything about this. Not Joe Pa – one of the most revered figures in all of sports.

Joe Pa – the man everyone looked up to as if he were their own grandfather. Joe Pa – the coach who ran his football program the right way – never a whisper of wrongdoing at one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

But then the reports started to come out about what Paterno knew about Sandusky’s assaults, and more importantly – when he knew it. The Penn State loyalists refused to believe that Joe Pa had covered this up in any way. Then came the revelation in the Freeh report that Paterno had in fact known about Sandusky’s attacks as far back as 1998, but did nothing about it, allowing Sandusky to continue assaulting children for another 14 years.

Maybe it was because of the huge amounts of money and prestige that the football program brought to Penn State. Maybe it was because he was afraid of what these revelations would do to his legacy. Or maybe it was because he knew Sandusky was one of the top defensive coaches in the country and that he could help Paterno win more games and possibly another National Championship. Those are all pathetic reasons to turn a blind eye to these horrific attacks, as is any reason to do anything other than immediately contact the police as soon as one found out about even the hint of what was going on.

There is a lot of blame to go around for this within Penn State, but Paterno wielded as much power and influence as anyone in that group. He built his career as a leader of men, and yet in this one critical moment he utterly failed to be the great leader he purported to be. His cowardly silence allowed Sandusky to continue to assault children for another 14 years. Now 14 years is a long time, but it’s not nearly as long as 36 years, and unfortunately that’s how long it now appears lapsed from when Paterno first learned about Sandusky’s despicable activities.

A new report this week cites courtroom testimony that Paterno was made aware of Sandusky’s attacks in 1976 firsthand from one of the victims. According to the report, when Paterno was confronted about this, he responded by saying “I don’t want to hear about any of that kind of stuff, I have a football season to worry about.”

And then he turned and walked away. Thirty-six years brought 310 wins, two National Championships, three Big Ten titles, countless awards, and the legacy as the greatest college football coach of all time. Now I don’t know how many children had their lives torn apart by Sandusky during that time, but one is too many, and the number is a hell of a lot higher than one. And when the Penn State faithful are asked about this they continue to defend their beloved Joe Pa.

Just last week 200 Penn State lettermen petitioned to have Paterno’s statue returned to its former place on campus. These and other efforts to rehabilitate Joe Pa’s legacy need to stop immediately. I’m sorry to say it, but that statue can never be raised again. They need to melt it down and use the metal for something useful.

The NCAA initially vacated 111 Paterno wins, but later reinstated them, which restored his title as the winningest coach of all time. The NCAA should not only take back those 111 wins, but go all the way back to 1976 and take away all 310 of those wins. They should vacate the 2 national championships, the 3the Big Ten titles, and all of the Bowl victories. They should also kill the football program. Not impose post season bans, or scholarship restrictions, but kill it entirely for at least 5 years.

Too harsh you say? It isn’t at all when you consider that Paterno and the very upper levels of the administration allowed Jerry Sandusky to sexually assault who knows how many kids for almost 40 years (and perhaps even longer if you believe that the attacks started before 1976). There is no penalty too severe for allowing this to occur.

I remember having a conversation about Paterno’s role in all of this with a Penn State graduate. I was shouted down and told angrily that I did not understand what Joe Paterno meant to that school, and what it meant to be a part of the Penn State. What I would say now is that the thing you are defending is a house of lies, not worthy of your support. And the man you once held in such high regard is also not worthy of your respect and admiration. A man who valued winning football games over the lives of innocent children.

As I said before, it’s a hard thing to see one’s idol fall from grace, but that’s exactly what has happened with Joe Paterno, and it’s time everyone faced up to that fact.