This week Joe Paterno, the former Penn State iconic football coach, was laid to rest. In his 46 years as the Nittany Lions coach, he accomplished athletic goals most coaches can only dream of: National championships, the winningest record in college football, the undying devotion of current and former members of his teams. He was known for his insistence on “winning with honor” and on making sure that most of his players actually graduated. He was never cited for NCAA violations and he had a reputation for promoting good old fashioned values of hard work and integrity.
There is no question that Joe Paterno loved Penn State and that, for the most part, Penn State loved him back. What was not to love? The success of the football program put Penn State on the map. As the coach of one of the 14 or so college football programs in the US that actually make a profit, Joe Paterno, as the head coach in charge of a multi-billion dollar enterprise, wielded incredible power in State College. It is impossible to visit this small college town in the middle of rural Pennsylvania and not feel the influence and presence of Joe Paterno everywhere. If he was not a God in State College, he was a king. It is fair to say that nothing of consequence, certainly nothing that might affect the football program, happened without the stamp of approval from “JoePa,” as he was called by many students in State College.
Gordon Spanier was president of the university, but Joe Paterno was the king. He put Penn State on the map and everyone on campus, regardless of their institutional power or position, deferred to him. A few years ago, Paterno was encouraged to step aside by Spanier and members of the Board of Trustees. “Encouraged” is the operative word here because, it was out of the question that anyone but Joe Paterno would make the decision about when it was time to go. When the meeting was over, Joe Paterno was still the coach and the administrators to whom he, in theory, reported, were sent packing back to their little offices somewhere not in the football kingdom over which he ruled absolutely.
Paterno once referred to himself as a “benevolent dictator.” He knew his power and he protected and used it as he saw fit. He saw fit to use his power to protect Rene Portland, the former women’s basketball coach at Penn State. Portland’s “no drugs, no alcohol, no lesbians” team policy was a well-known “secret” among many coaches and fans. As described in “Training Rules,” the excellent documentary on this sad 25 year period of prejudice and discrimination, Portland had free rein to destroy the dreams of any player she perceived to be a lesbian. The same cast of administrators who failed to act when told of the allegations of child rape against former football coach, Jerry Sandusky, also failed to take action against Portland. Because she had Joe Paterno’s protection, Penn State defended and protected her.
According to this interview with former VP in charge of judicial appeals at Penn State, Vicky Triponey, she resigned in part because of Paterno’s interference with university process and procedures when football players were charged with serious violations of the student conduct code. Paterno had no qualms about inserting his power into these proceedings to demand, apparently at the top of his lungs as he saw fit, that football players receive special treatment. He did not want the university disciplining his players. Triponey acknowledges that her decisions about disciplining football players were overruled on more than one occasion by university administrations who bowed to Paterno’s pressure.
Somewhere along the line, Joe Paterno’s stature in State College entered in to the mythical realm. He was treated as a living legend. Somewhere along the line protecting Penn State football and Joe Paterno’s legacy became more important than acting on information that threatened that public legacy of “winning with honor” and his vaunted reputation of integrity. Somewhere along the line, Joe Paterno, the king of State College, lost his moral compass. Ask the women’s basketball players whose careers Rene Portland ruined. Ask VP Vicky Triponey who absorbed the wrath of Paterno’s power over her enforcement of the student conduct code with football players. Ask the victims of the Jerry Sandusky scandal who must listen every day to the defenders of Joe Paterno who have made a child sex abuse scandal all about Joe and HIS mistreatment at the hands of the Board of Trustees who fired him.
It is difficult to reconcile the Joe Paterno who was king of Penn State with the Joe Paterno who claimed he didn’t know what to do when he learned in 2002 about the allegations against Jerry Sandusky. Joe Paterno always knew what to do. Joe Paterno never was reluctant to use his power to get what he wanted. When it came down to it, Joe Paterno acted as he always did: He acted to protect his own and Penn State football’s public image and legacy. He did what was legally required of him, but no more. He reported it to his “superiors” and then forgot about it. It was out of his hands.
This time, however, the enormity of the allegations against Sandusky and the lack of response to these allegations by Paterno and all the administrators involved, brings to light the hypocrisy of Penn State football’s claim of “winning with integrity.” The truth is if Joe Paterno had used his power, as he had in so many other situations, to insist on a serious investigation of the allegations against Sandusky at the time when he first learned of them, it would have happened. Period. If Joe Paterno had used his power as boldly as he always had, other young men might have been spared becoming victims.
If ever there was a message about the dangers of ceding power to college football or basketball coaches because of their winning records and ability to bring in the bucks to a university, this is it. If ever a scandal exposed the myth of integrity and honor in big time college sports, this is it. In this, the defining moment of his career, Joe Paterno was no hero and he did not win with honor.