Why I Find Joe Paterno’s Letter Ridiculous

by Geoffrey Tabor on July 20, 2012

In light of the trial surrounding former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, a 7-month old letter has been released written by Joe Paterno, which focused on the idea of the Sandusky scandal not being a “football problem”. Judging from the contents of the letter, Paterno felt strongly about distinguishing the tragedy as one that should not tarnish the Penn State legacy, and that the football program should not be cast under the shadows of the incidents involving Sandusky:

“This is not a football scandal and should not be treated as one. “Over and over again, I have heard Penn State officials decrying the influence of football and have heard such ignorant comments like Penn State will no longer be a `football factory’ and we are going to `start’ focusing on integrity in athletics. These statements are simply unsupported by the five decades of evidence to the contrary – and succeed only in unfairly besmirching both a great university and the players and alumni of the football program who have given of themselves to help make it great”.

Paterno seemed to have been under the impression that he could completely sever ties between Jerry Sandusky’s actions and the institutionalization of Penn State Football. In some cases for athletic programs dealing with misconduct, this can most certainly be the case. This incident, however, is not one of those cases. In fact, it is about as far from it as possible.

What I think Paterno is missing here is that what allowed all of these sexual abuses to happen WAS Penn State Football. The strong institutional influence that the football program has over people’s decisions and lives is what allowed for Sandusky’s conduct to continue for so long. This is especially evident, considering the power and popularity of Penn State Football. Penn State is one of the most marketable names in the Northeast. Its marketability, tradition, and stadium (which officially seats just over 106,000 people) all contribute to a very powerful institution of pride and power. If Jerry Sandusky was an assistant tennis coach at a division 1 university, there is no chance his misconduct with young boys would have gone unwarranted for so long. If you don’t believe that, then you do not understand how utterly influential and powerful sports can be in our society, and in this specific case, college football catering to the masses and special interest groups surrounding the Penn State program. The blunt truth is that football was not only the catalyst to these incidents, but the lifeline for these obscene abuses to continue. This is shown by some of the coaching staff and administration’s apathy to act in light of favoring their job security over creating a public mess of the ordeal, the Second Mile ties to donors, and much more.

To the Penn Staters, I do feel genuinely sorry that this happened to your legendary coach who led the football program for almost 46 years, but your logic should eventually trump emotion. To stubbornly cling to the Paterno legacy as something unscathed or immune from these events is not only unreasonable, it is deluded. For the Penn State community to attempt to put JoePa or the football program on a pedestal above these events saying that “it isn’t a football problem” is inconsiderate. To me, it is a textbook example of nostalgia-driven madness. Outside of the events surrounding Jerry Sandusky, I respect Paterno as a coach who gave his life to Penn State University and the game of college football. With this said, however, no legacy ever becomes immune to scrutiny. I feel that Brown University (Paterno’s alma mater) is justified in renaming their athletic excellence award, Penn State is justified in renaming the tailgating grounds surrounding the stadium from Paterno-ville to Nittany-ville, and so on.

Jerry Sandusky is largely the only legally “guilty” party here, but the Penn State Football program should not be immune to such a travesty. The institutionalization of the football program and apathy exercised by members of the athletic program only serve as evidence as to how the football program allowed Sandusky’s actions to continue. SMU received the death penalty for their football program for the 1987 and 1988 seasons for offenses that I would categorize as being not nearly as serious as the atrocious acts committed at Penn State. The events at SMU were however very different and much more entrenched in the program and Dallas/Ft. Worth area, but the Penn State Scandal is much more harmful, and I would still categorize it as an entrenched problem. With that said, I am not advocating giving the Penn State program the death penalty. Even though this should not result in death penalty status, it should merit a serious punishment from the NCAA.

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