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DETROIT FREE PRESS

Paterno's Legacy Is Not The Real Issue Today

By Mitch Albom

The story is not Joe Paterno. The story is not his abruptly announced retirement Wednesday - or the raging debate over whether he should coach the remaining games this season. When a scandal erupts, the American way is always to howl for a scalp.

But the scalp here is not Paterno's.

The scalp - if the charges are true - belongs first, second and third to Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator now facing multiple counts of sexual abuse with eight boys over 15 years. Groping them. Molesting them. Doing unmentionable things in the showers. All while operating an organization created to help needy kids.

Sandusky is the story. Sandusky - and the victims. Many of them are young men now. They face a lifetime of nightmares and issues with intimacy and trust. Read any book about it. Ask any expert. The damager may have gone away. The damage never does.

We should not lose sight of this in a rush to crush the biggest name in the paragraph. Paterno, 84, absolutely should have done more - he basically said so in his retirement statement - but for now, the focus should be Sandusky. He's the devil in these details.

He's just not as famous as JoePa.

Coach clearly should have done more

And so headlines scream, "What did Joe know?" and "Should Joe Go?" - as if his dismissal at Penn State today or next month is the core of the issue.

It's never that simple. I have interviewed Paterno over the years. I believe he is all the things he's purported to be - disciplined, principled, fiercely devoted to his players and his school. All he has done in 46 seasons as Penn State's head coach is not wiped out by what he did not do with Sandusky. Every kid whose life he helped is not erased by the eight kids he did not.

Life is not a math equation. You can be a good man who did an inexcusable thing, and an inexcusable man who does one great act.

In this case, the inexcusable is Paterno's inaction. While we do not know how much he knew - and until we do, it's a rush to judgment - we do know this much: He was told about Sandusky in the showers of the football building with a grade-schooler back in 2002.

And while it may have been described as "horseplay" to Paterno, what kind of horseplay takes place between a man and a boy of those ages?

Sexual abuse was not a secret in 2002. A more concerned Paterno would have gone beyond telling his athletic director - even though Sandusky, at the time, was no longer on the Penn State staff. Do I believe Paterno could have been so wrapped up in his program that he didn't know much more? Maybe. But all he had to do was push the issue. Pull Sandusky aside. Say, "Tell me everything." Then go to the authorities if there is a shred of doubt.

Paterno and other Penn State officials instead kept it internal, a sadly common practice in big-time college football and other places, including religious institutions. They weighed the potential damage and chose benign neglect.

But there is nothing benign in abuse.

Coach should not call shots in Happy Valley

"This is a tragedy," Paterno said in his statement. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.

"My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination."

Dignity, in Happy Valley, is a past tense word right now. And critics are not wrong when they say Paterno is still trying to call his own shot - finish out a winning season, then retire. It will be surreal - perhaps insulting - seeing him run out with his team in Beaver Stadium this Saturday against Nebraska.

But let's not lose the focus. Even if Paterno were dismissed today, Sandusky's alleged sins are no less vile. And those poor young men are no less damaged.

So if we need a national discussion, let's talk about what makes a child molester, the signs, the potential safeguards, and how do sports with their locker rooms and intimate camaraderie foster potential abuse?

It may make us feel better to turn the hot light on Paterno. But making him the story is, in a weird way, doing a bit of what critics are assailing: allowing the football program to overshadow a tragedy that takes place every day in this country and must be stopped.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).




Wolverine81's picture

Disappointed


Mitch, after reading your columns during my 4 years in Ann Arbor and watching you regularly on the Sports Reporters, I'm surprised and disappointed this would be your perspective. Joe Pa is touted as the "moral compass" of Penn State and in the "one" time we know about, when no one was watching he decided to turn the other way and choose his football program over the lives of young boys that were being destroyed by a life long close friend. It appears he didn't even ask or try to find out how the boy from the 2002 incident was doing or what else his "buddy" Jerry was up to. You've been around sports long enough to know that nothing on the Penn State campus of any signiicance is happening without Joe's knowledge. What about the 2 earlier incidents, especially in 1998? Do you also think Joe wasn't aware of that? Shouldn't that have set off bells andwhistles when the 2002 incident came up? I'll be the first to agree Joe has done a lot of good for a lot of young men who have come through his football program over the years, but to give him a pass until we know all the "facts" doesn't seem apprpriate in this case. Would you feel the same if it was someone you knew who had been abused during 2002-2011 time frame when things could have been stopped had Joe had a different set of priorities? I'm hoping you'll rethink your position as you read these comments and watch what unfolds in "Happy Valley"!

 

nate71369's picture

Not on point Mitch


Mitch,

All involved all monsters...Curly, Sandusky, etc... That being said the movie A Few Good Men has the most poigant, perfect scene to sum this up (also appropriate on Vetern's Day), no it isnt the you cant handle the truth scene. The scene is at the end when the Marines are dishonorably discharged, though they probably did everything else right in their career, hmm rings true like Joe Pa eh?? but when the time came to fight for those who couldnt fight for themseleve and protect those who needed protecting what did those alleged MEN do...they juse followed their orders, they didnt do what they should have done, protect those who need protecting..can it be better said then any of that??

So what the Joe Pa helped football, big deal... Did he help in that moment or did he just follow orders??

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EQQYeRAT3o&feature=related

Barb McWethy's picture

Joe P and the rest of the 'boys'


I have to disagree with you. Anyone who works in education, social work, whatever with children is familiar with the 'mandated reporter' rules. If you see, hear or suspect abuse you are legally mandated to report it. As a former director of an early childhood program I've had to make that call 4 times in my career. It's the ugliest part of the job, but I'd rather make the call and be wrong than find out 9 years later that there were many more than the one. I think this is going to get even uglier once the digging starts. Joe may have made that one call on the one kid the grad student told him about, but I have this sick feeling that he was probably aware of the abuser's issues and like the guy from the NY Times(I think) said on the Today show this morning, they all closed ranks to protect the institution. College football brings in tons of money, but how much actually goes to the entire college? Coaches with high profile careers seem to think they can do no wrong, and I think Joe's comments about the board not having to worry about him and moving on to other issues shows that he thought he was pretty high in the hierarchy when it comes to decision making. Penn State finally decided to put what's right in the forfront instead of what was good for the team. Sadly, I don't think they are done cleaning house yet and the dirt is going to get much worse. Makes me wonder who's program is next? Penn State just got caught first. Hope I don't sound too off the wall, but as an educator, mother of 3 grown sons and 3 grandson's I don't have a lot of compassion for issues like this. Thanks for letting me rant :)