Based on the virtually non-stop talk on sports radio and television lately about revered Penn State football program icon Joe Paternos role in the cover-up of child abuse by his former coach, Jerry Sandusky, I fully expected to see some damning evidence against the late coach in the recently released investigation report by former FBI chief Louis Freeh.
Then I read nearly every word of the report. The damning evidence I expected wasnt there.
The sports talking heads – with their calls for the college to take down a campus statue of the legendary coach and their overall tone that the investigation showed we needed to forget anything good Paterno had done in his 60 years at the school – had me convinced I would see something shocking in the lengthy report.
Maybe something like an email authored by Joe Pa that said: We need to do everything we can to protect Penn State. Jerry may be a horrible man doing unspeakable things to children, but we cannot let him bring down this great institution. Roar, Lions, roar.
No such email was there.
What I learned from reading the report is that you have to make some leaps to indict Paterno for any sort of cover-up. And that the media has been more than willing to do so. The fall of a legend is a big deal ... and if every competitor in the news media is reporting about the fall of a legend, you sure dont want to be the guy suggesting we should more slowly and deeply analyze what we know.
I can do that because the survival of my newspaper doesnt hinge on whether the seven people who read my column give a Nittanys patootie about what I think – about Joe Paterno or any other subject for that matter.
So here is what I think: Paterno is another in a long line of Sanduskys victims. There isnt anything in the report that tells me that, just as there isnt anything in the report that clearly says he covered for his long-time friend.
But if we have to take what we know and make some leaps, I am leaping in the direction that Paternos crime was not believing in real time what all the pundits – and a jury – could more readily see years down the road after a lot of investigation: That Sandusky was a monster.
Paterno was a victim of human nature. He likely refused to believe his loyal, long-time friend – a seeming doer of good on many levels – was a sick predator.
Ive seen this kind of behavior before. Youve seen this kind of behavior before.
Maybe it was your child who got caught red-handed shoplifting something from a convenience store. The child tells you he didnt do it. The police says he did. Who do you – his mom or dad – believe? The child, of course. Evidence be damned, YOUR child would never do anything like that. The police MUST be wrong.
No one knows what Sandusky told Paterno when confronted about accusations he was molesting children, but you can bet it was a lie. And you can bet it was convincing. Sandusky made a career of living a terrible lie. He had to be good at it.
Paterno is too dead to tell us he was duped - that he wrongly chose to believe an explanation of innocent horseplay over what we now know was rape. That he WANTED to believe his friend, so he DID believe his friend. You should also note that the choice was bolstered we now know wrongly by a university police investigation that resulted in no charges being filed against Sandusky.
Paterno had his friend copping to inappropriate but not illegal behavior. He had cops telling him his friend engaged in inappropriate but not illegal behavior. He naturally wanted to believe what he was told.
Doing so doesnt tarnish his legacy as one of the greatest football coaches the collegiate ranks has ever known. It doesnt mean we should pull down his campus statue or forget his strong record of graduating players, of running a clean and top-ranked football program.
It just means he was human.
Theres nothing good about the Penn State story involving Jerry Sandusky. Its sad and tragic. Freehs investigation uncovers problems with how many university officials can be tagged for poorly handling everything that went on. It just lacks damning evidence that Joe Pa was one of those officials.