Subscriber OnlySportAmerica at Large

Dave Hannigan: Blind loyalists eager to rehabilitate Paterno’s tarnished reputation

Bid to name football stadium after Penn State’s former ‘secular pope’ who was removed as head coach in 2011 following a child sex abuse scandal

At a meeting in Penn State University last week, a motion was tabled to have Beaver Stadium renamed Joe Paterno Field after the institution’s most successful football coach.

A resolution was also considered to designate a special day next season to honour the immense contribution he and his wife Susan made to campus life during his 45 years in charge.

“My fellow trustees, we have reached the moment of truth,” said Anthony Lubrano, a graduate from the class of 1982. “Are we going to honour two people who have literally given their lives in the pursuit of a better Penn State? Are we going to allow fearmongering to prevail?”

Fearmongering is a unique way to refer to Paterno being removed as head coach in 2011 following a child sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, his former offensive coordinator, and a member of his staff for three decades.


The coach lovingly known as JoePa was fired when it emerged that in 1998 and 2001 he failed to properly act upon information about Sandusky being in compromising situations with young boys. As more victims came forward, there were further allegations Paterno knew about these predilections as far back as 1976 and did nothing.

“Only the most blinkered of Penn State football fans could believe that enough time had passed to pursue this,” wrote Mike Sielski of the Philadelphia Inquirer last week.

“Only someone chugging from a keg of blue-and-white Kool-Aid could rationalise that enough pain had subsided to make it appropriate to splash Paterno’s name across the 106,572-seat symbol of the blindness and warped priorities that helped create both the cover for Jerry Sandusky to sexually abuse children and the hesitancy to step forward and stop him. Better you name a Massachusetts CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) rec center after a Boston bishop.”

Sielski is a voice of reason in Pennsylvania where a constituency, consisting of Penn State alumni and even faculty members, argue that Paterno, contrary to evidence, couldn’t have done anything about Sandusky because he knew nothing.

They dispute the damning findings of an independent investigation into his role carried out by Louis Freeh, former head of the FBI, and think the university erred in paying out over $118 million in restitution to those whose lives were destroyed by a man using his Penn State status and locker room access to groom young boys.

A credulous demographic, some diehard Paterno supporters also subscribe to the belief Sandusky is innocent too. Never mind that a court in which half the jurors had ties to Penn State found him guilty on 45 out of 48 charges of sexual abuse of 10 boys between 1994 and 2009 and sentenced him to 30 to 60 years in jail.

Or that some of his victims, by then grown men, wept as they testified to the horrors suffered at his hands. That scarcely registers with those, egged on by a conspiracy theorist documentary maker, who contend all that graphic detail was the product of “repressed memory” therapy.

In a dystopian sports landscape where fresh, gaudier monuments to sportswashing are erected every week, the determination of college gridiron alickadoos, evincing loyalty more usual in a religious cult, to wilfully ignore wrongdoing on the part of legendary coaches remains shocking.

Having come of age in a world where men like Paterno, and the University of Michigan’s Bo Schembechler (who allegedly knew and took no action about a doctor molesting his players) were deified, the blind worshippers can’t handle finding out these gods from their student days turned out to have feet of clay.

Since Paterno’s death in 2012 several candidates have been elected to the university’s board of trustees on the promise to restore his tarnished legacy, a vote-winning strategy since, bizarrely, the faithful remain bitter about the university removing a seven-foot bronze sculpture of their false idol that once stood outside Beaver Stadium.

While last week’s meeting (which was preceded by clandestine get-togethers to plot accordingly) decided to postpone the renaming plan, at the behest of Paterno’s son Jay, a trustee, it appears to be merely the first salvo in a renewed campaign to rehabilitate his father’s damaged reputation. It may succeed.

Plenty of alumni think his track record of impressive philanthropy somehow outweighs any negligence when it came to Sandusky. As if generously donating money for academic scholarships negates failing to do the right thing when you get told one of your former coaches is in your locker room showers with a prepubescent boy.

Paterno was the biggest man on campus, the highest-paid employee at a public institution, and the most influential. Nothing happened in and around his team without him knowing or without his say-so. All-seeing, all-powerful. Except, his supporters claim, when it came to the proclivities of one member of his coaching staff.

And if he was told anything about Sandusky, he was so pure he didn’t understand what he was being told. Or some such rubbish. Refuseniks will do anything rather than admit evidence indicates he covered up crimes rather than expose them and seriously damage his own national standing and the good name of Penn State.

A writer once described Paterno, as “the secular pope”, a nod to the quasi-spiritual power he wielded and his devout Catholicism. Many of those who still prostrate themselves before his memory believed that hype and figured the doctrine of papal infallibility must apply to him too. It didn’t. It doesn’t.