Why I Find Joe Paterno’s Letter Ridiculous

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.

  • Sam

    I was very surprised to read your last two lines especially after just summarizing your whole article with ” but the Penn State Scandal is much more harmful, and I would still categorize it as an entrenched problem.”

    If any football program needs the death penalty, it is Penn State!

    Also would you consider the whole university complacent since depts. that include such subjects as Latin, Russian Lit., etc… benefit and would probably be non existant without the big money brought in from football?

  • Geoffrey Tabor

    Thanks for the comment, Sam.

    In my mind, the death penalty should be given to stop a problem. I think it is safe to say the problem is taken care of at Penn State (well, we hope!). I am not completely against giving them the death penalty if the problems were to continue, however. For SMU, the death penalty seemed like the only option for the NCAA. SMU had been caught paying off players (even the president of the university knew, school administrators, Texas congressmen, businessmen, etc.) time after time. The death penalty was the last punch to silence the beast. Nothing else could have stopped that machine.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the whole university being complacent? In my mind, complacent means that you knew of the scandal going on and you did nothing to alert the authorities or get rid of Sandusky. Latin and Russian departments that simply benefit from athletic revenues that do not count as complacent in my mind. The only way they would is if they knew what Sandusky was doing and remained apathetic rather than act to do the right thing.

  • Sam

    I still think Penn State should receive the death penalty for at least 20 years. They may have Sandusky, but I don’t think the culture has changed. For instance, they haven’t taken down Joe’s statue. It just seems to me that whole “football is God” will be up and running as soon as the 106,000 seats are filled Sept. 1st and the money comes rolling in again.

    I do see your point about the other depts. Like you were saying they didn’t know about Sandusky–I guess. I have read different articles saying everyone in the community talked in whispers about Sandusky. Whether that is true or not I don’t know. With the many victims it is hard to understand how somebody wouldn’t know. It just seems like at most colleges, thank goodness not at Stanford, the university kind of puts up with the football players antics, criminal activity and low academics because they bring in so much money.

    Also I have a little brother and that affects my opinion.

    On a good note Andrew Luck signed yesterday! I couldn’t be prouder of our coach and football team. It gives me hope for the future when I see there can be outstanding athletes with outstanding academics.

  • Wyatt

    The Death Penalty ? Hmm ! Well yes Penn State should suffer some sort of Death Penalty . 5 , 10 . 20 years ? I don’t know what is justified . But it is sad that the players and students at Penn State need suffer so harshly for the actions of their mentors , teachers and or coach’s .

    As for Joe Paterno , I think his letter self serving and in-sincere . While he may have given a life time of service to Penn State , I do not think him the great coach deserving of a statue . One forgets that a great coach has great players to work with and Penn State has had their fair share of them . Also we ted to forget that these athelete’s are attending collage to get an education , not simply to go on to possibly be a star in the NFL . How many of these NFL stars really have any real education or could make it in the real world if their careers were cut short ? Yes they make huge salaries that most squander on fancy cars, mansions and parties drinking overpriced Chrystal !

    Does Paterno deserve a statue ? Yes and no . For his time spent as head coach yes . But for his ignoring the situation and protecting a friend involved in a heinous act , NO ! And the truth is that he brought it on himself and has no one else to blame .

  • Earl Miller

    It is extreme, this punishment handed down to Penn State. Yes, punish the guilty parties. who knew and determine when they knew it. If they knew and did a stall or cover-up then go after them. But why punish the football program. Joe Paterno yes, lam-bast him, show no mercy, but what did the football program have to do with it. This punishment of 60 mill, is not justified. What you are actually doing is punishing the students. Tell me, what did they have to do with it? The students who are being hurt are the future of Penn State. Not that I care a whit about the school, I don’t , but why punish the students or the school. Find the guilty among the faculty and the administration and punish them, with loss of position, and fines. Do your due diligence. put the punishment where it belongs, not on the students, or the school’s future.

  • Geoffrey Tabor

    Earl, I feel that the whole “it’s punishing the students, etc.” is a bit of a naive stance by now. Tell me one instance where the kids AREN’T punished. I am not justifying the system, but rather stating that that is how it is! That’s how the NCAA works. The NCAA has to adhere to a precedent of punishing programs for breaking the rules. Period. If they didn’t fine and punish Penn St for what happened but just said, “Well you know, the guilty parties got what they deserved, let’s just move on” would be an extremely dangerous trend to set. If you “let” Penn St off with no NCAA sanctions, then you might as well never punish ANY program EVER! You need to apply consistent logic and punishment across the board. That is how the system works.