A Faustian pact that hid sexual abuse to protect a brand

Mon, Jul 23, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:Football coach Joe Paterno concealed abuse to protect a cash cow and his reputation

WAS IT right to take down former American football coach Joe Paterno’s statue outside the University of Pennsylvania’s stadium, as though he were Saddam Hussein?

Since the publication earlier this month of the scorching report by former FBI director Louis Freeh, which found Paterno and three other top Penn State administrators concealed sex abuse claims against retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, plenty of people had weighed in on the best thing to do with that triumphant seven-foot statue of the late coach, which symbolised nearly half a century of pride in football at the university.

Should it be torn down? Melted down? Moved away from Beaver Stadium? Turned to look the other way, as Paterno did?

The sculptor, Angelo Di Maria, got into the fray, counselling patience. “Put a cover on it,” he said, and “let’s see how everyone feels in six months” or a year.

After a plane flew over the campus several days last week trailing a banner that said: “Take the statue down or we will”, some students set up camp to guard the monument from vandals.

Don Van Natta jnr, a senior writer for ESPN, wrote on Friday that the university’s trustees, worried that the National Collegiate Athletic Association might give the death penalty to the Penn State football programme for its “loss of institutional control”, banning it for a year or more, had a “spirited” conference call on Thursday night, debating what to do with the statue.

“People want to kick Joe’s bones,” one board member complained to Van Natta. “It’s outrageous.” Trustees however said Penn State’s new president, Rodney Erickson, would decide.

Yesterday, the statue was taken down and put in storage. If I were the decider, I’d have left it up. But I’d have put up a darkly alluring statue behind Paterno, whispering in his ear: Mephistopheles.

Jerry Sandusky is a sexual sociopath. When you looked into his eyes during his trial, as young men who had been raped by him as trusting boys cried and cringed on the stand, there was no emotion there, no shame.

Paterno is the tragic figure in the case, the man who went to church and taught his players “success with honour” but who succumbed to supporting depravity. His name was derived from the Latin word for father, and JoePa was the beloved paterfamilias of Penn State. How did he crack his moral compass?

It’s the story of Faust, a morality play that unspools daily in politics, banking, sports and the Catholic Church. It has taken many artistic forms, from puppet theatre to the Marlowe and Goethe plays to opera to a musical that was also a sports morality tale, “Damn Yankees”, about a middle-aged real estate agent who sells his soul to be a slugger named “Shoeless Joe” Hardy for the Washington Senators.

Like Dr Faust, Paterno was a learned man, an opera lover versed in the classics. A graduate of Brown University, JoePa was known for quoting Virgil and Shakespeare in his Brooklyn accent, and loved the Robert Browning line: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Certainly, he was grasping with both hands in January 2011. Paterno began negotiating to amend his contract and get a sweeter deal with luxury perks such as the use of the university’s private jet even as prosecutors plumbed the depths of Sandusky’s pathological behaviour.

In an interview in 1987, Thomas Ferraro of United Press International asked Paterno about his holier-than-thou image. A few sceptics said JoePa was an egotistical zealot who would do anything to win, Ferraro wrote, but most people idolised him as “the saint in black cleats of the often seamy world of college sports”.

Paterno replied: “It scares the heck out of me because I know I’m not that clean. Nobody is that clean.”

And it turned out he wasn’t.

Freeh, who conducted the school’s investigation, found that despite the denials of Paterno and his family, the coach knew about a 1998 allegation that Sandusky had abused a child in the Penn State showers. Since Paterno was the most powerful man on campus, he was being disingenuous when he said he did his duty by reporting Sandusky to top officials after Mike McQueary told him in 2001 that he had seen the slab of an assistant coach molesting a slight boy in the shower.

But Freeh learned the sulphurous truth: that it was Paterno who persuaded Graham Spanier, who was the university president, Gary Schultz, a vice president, and Tim Curley, the athletic director, not to report Sandusky to state authorities.

Eager to protect the brand and their cash cow, they decided to rationalise. Euphemistically, they said they wanted to do the “humane” thing – so they warned Sandusky to stop bringing children on to campus. As far as the noble coach was concerned, Sandusky could simply switch the venue of his child rapes.

Paterno, Freeh said, made “the worst mistake of his life”, committing the deadly sin of pride. After all those decades acting the part of a modest, moral man, he put his reputation above the welfare of children. The saint in black cleats sold his soul, and Satan leads the dance.

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