In his first 45 years as head football coach at Penn State, Joe Paterno never faced more than the whiff of an occasional off-campus incident involving a misbehaving player. No dads trying to sell their sons' services to the highest bidder. No trading autographs for tattoos. No attention-loving alumni waving wads of bills at nightclubs with star players in tow.
The allegations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, though, trump all those. Engaging in sexual acts with underage boys, of which Sandusky is accused, is not a violation of NCAA bylaws, so at least that streak is intact for Paterno. But these allegations deal with an entirely different, criminal nature, and although Paterno is not accused of acting in any way to abet Sandusky's alleged crimes, his inaction may have been bad enough.
"All of a sudden, a football program where a star gets a new automobile from a booster now and then or a player gets a free tattoo in exchange for memorabilia doesn't seem that bad," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford. "Penn State administrators are accused of failing to act on allegations of sexual assaults on children. Top that, Ohio State. Beat that record, Miami."
A grand jury report made public by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office describes a coach who wiped his hands of the issue. After a graduate assistant told the coach that he saw Sandusky engaging in a sexual act with a young boy in a locker room shower, Paterno relayed the report to the athletic director, and that was it, according to the report.
For many of Paterno's defenders, he moved the issue up the chain of command, and that's enough. It shouldn't be. Paterno is the most famous face in Happy Valley, the man whose name is on the library and whose money built many buildings on campus. His name is literally on the Penn State brochure.
If a crime was occuring under Paterno's watch, and all he did was turn the matter over to his superiors, the Paterno legend should take a hit. If Sandusky is guilty, and Paterno went on with business as usual, he is not the valiant warrior standing for what's right without compromise, as we've been led to believe these past four and a half decades. Instead, he would be nothing less than another immoral egoist who lacks compassion for the alleged victims and who shrugged his shoulders when the rules — NCAA or legal — were being violated.
Paterno has reportedly been praised by prosecutors for handling himself appropriately, but doing what he had to do is different from doing what he should have done. If the attorney general's report is accurate, it seems unlikely Paterno can keep his job with anything resembling the respect he's always received.