Paterno bears more blame than deserved

There’s a certain cliché—“Words cannot describe how I feel right now”—that people often use to describe moments of extreme happiness and unbridled joy.

The same cliché can be used to describe the exact opposite: moments of fury, moments of revulsion, moments where no words can ever truly describe the horror of the situation.

There are probably no words that can accurately convey the true horror of what has unfolded at Penn State. No one will ever be able to describe the (likely incomprehensible) inner workings of Jerry Sandusky’s mind or, more importantly, the emotional trials Sandusky’s victims have dealt with and will continue to deal with in the future.

There is no way that a story that involves the alleged rape of several young children can have a happy ending, but the thought of the hammer of justice dropping on those responsible offers some cheap measure of satisfaction. We need to know whom to punish for everything that has happened.

At the same time, we need as much information as possible before acting. The entire scandal happened because of a lack of transparency within Penn State’s athletic department and upper administration. Now that more and more facts are appearing, it is crucial to avoid making the mistake of jumping to conclusions in the aftermath despite the urge to pin this mess on someone.

Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s hands are not clean. It is hard to know exactly what graduate assistant Mike McQueary told him on that day that McQueary saw Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy, but it seems fair to say Paterno did know something was wrong and did not act.

Still, as of the time of press, Paterno has not had a chance to address the media, so it is unclear exactly what information McQueary conveyed while in his distressed state. It just doesn’t feel right to pin this as a complete moral failing by Paterno.

It’s easy to point to Paterno’s actions and say he only did the bare minimum. It’s easy to say that when the life of an innocent child was in question, the first instinct of a man as powerful as Paterno should have been to call the police, even if the allegations revolved around a man he had considered a friend for decades.

But shouldn’t Paterno be given the chance to offer his side of the story, especially since he has been the only one who has been willing to talk?

Maybe the only reason I can justify that defense of Paterno is that I am not a parent. In a scenario that transcends the bounds of what is rational, what Paterno’s harshest critics are saying may be true: once it became clear that a child’s safety was in question, anyone who did not go out of his way to bring in law enforcement to stop Sandusky is just as complicit and just as guilty.

Of course, the list of people who failed in this regard is far longer than just Paterno. Athletic director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz both face perjury charges for their roles. Spanier, the university president who voiced unconditional support for Curley and Schultz, has been fired.

But the biggest reason I can’t bring myself to target Paterno is that at the time of this writing, the rapist himself is receiving almost no attention in any story about the scandal.

On some level, this makes a little sense. There is, after all, universal agreement that if all of the allegations are true, Jerry Sandusky does not deserve the right to be called a human being. But rather than being demonized, Sandusky has simply been marginalized in a media blitz that has been all about Joe Paterno and other figures in positions of power at Penn State. That the true criminal in this scandal has become a seeming afterthought is a colossal failure.

What would be an even more colossal failure, however, is if Sandusky’s victims were to be forgotten. Nine have been identified to date, and if anyone in this case deserves unconditional support, it is these young men.  Far more important than answering the question of who was at fault in the actual scandal is ensuring that the victims receive as much support and guidance as they need and are able to live as normally as possible under the circumstances.

It’s possible Paterno deserves all of the flak he has received in recent days, but not if it distracts from exposing the one true monster here and ensuring his victims receive support—and in many ways, that unfortunately seems to be what is happening.